Radio Cade

Online Games to Teach STEM Skills (Re-release)

July 08, 2020 Lindsey Tropf Season 1 Episode 85
Radio Cade
Online Games to Teach STEM Skills (Re-release)
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Radio Cade
Online Games to Teach STEM Skills (Re-release)
Jul 08, 2020 Season 1 Episode 85
Lindsey Tropf

Can video games be used for education? Co-host James Di Virgilio puts that question to Lindsey Tropf, founder and CEO of Immersed Games. Unlike other educational software, Immersed Games uses online, multi-player experiences to teach things like STEM skills to middle-schoolers. Eventually, the programs can be customized by individual teachers to achieve their specific learning goals. A gamer herself, Lindsey became an “accidental” entrepreneur while earning her PhD in education. *This episode is a re-release*

Show Notes Transcript

Can video games be used for education? Co-host James Di Virgilio puts that question to Lindsey Tropf, founder and CEO of Immersed Games. Unlike other educational software, Immersed Games uses online, multi-player experiences to teach things like STEM skills to middle-schoolers. Eventually, the programs can be customized by individual teachers to achieve their specific learning goals. A gamer herself, Lindsey became an “accidental” entrepreneur while earning her PhD in education. *This episode is a re-release*

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade and podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

James Di Virgilio:

Video games are the most popular form of entertainment, but can they be used for education? I'm James Di Virgilio. One of the cohost of Radio Cade, and with me today is Lindsey Tropf, the founder and CEO of Immersed Games. Lindsey , thanks for joining us.

Lindsey Tropf:

Thanks for having me, I'm excited to be able to chat.

James Di Virgilio:

So Immersed Games, the first thing somebody might think of, if they don't know what it is you do is that you're creating video games, which is only partly true. Tell us what you're working on and why that's different.

Lindsey Tropf:

So, we are focusing on video games that really empower people to do deep learning and problem-solving. Right now, we're really focusing around middle school science. We chose this because middle school is generally the time that students either really solidify their love of STEM or it drops off. And so it's a really critical time point for students when they're trying to engage around STEM and science topics. And so, our games really focus on bringing that love of problem solving and understanding of the importance of it to the forefront so that students are engaging in exploring a coral reef that has a problem to figure out how climate change is affecting it, or building an ecosystem from scratch to learn how to balance it. And so they're engaging these really hands-on problem-solving experiences that are really kind of an authentic experience of maybe something as scientists would do or think about.

James Di Virgilio:

The game itself is not like a typical game somebody might think of when it comes to education. I have a friend, he home schools his children, they use a lot of educational games , uh , very successfully , but they tend to be one player games that navigate you through a course or a curriculum. Yours is entirely different, it's an online player based interactive multi-player game. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Lindsey Tropf:

Yeah, so the inspiration behind it came from playing a lot of those types of games when I was in high school, I played something called, Star Wars Galaxies, where you actually made player cities together and did all sorts of really cool emerging, creative things out of that. And then a lot of World of Warcraft and things. So when I was working on my PhD in education at the University of Florida, as we talked about what ideal learning and ideal learning communities looked like, it really always reminded me of these gameplay experiences. And so for me, it was about not wanting only kind of the single player experience that delivers content, but there's a lot of richer things you can do if you have a community around it, if you're problem solving together, if you're collaborating and you're building those skills. And so we're actually working on a grant with the National Science Foundation right now, where we're adding an entire piece where groups of students work together to figure out what's wrong and an ecosystem and test engineering solutions together. And you can't really do that as well on a single player game.

James Di Virgilio:

When you're creating this massive, online, learning world, it seems like you're trying to create a game that can be tailored. Is that right? So if the school board in New York wants to be able to have your game achieve XYZ , you can create an online environment that mimics that or helps achieve that goal, right? It's not just a static world. It's one that you can adapt and customize?

Lindsey Tropf:

That's something we could do in the future, right now we're really just working on a very strong core, but yes, we have a whole set of content, authoring tools and part of our longterm goals are to let people start customizing with those. And some of the sooner ways that we'll be addressing that are actually with this NSF project that I just mentioned, the National Science Foundation, that we are going to be making some early versions where teachers can start customizing and saying like, okay, I want students to work together and solve a problem, but actually use some tools to say, well, in our area, maybe bees dying are a really big issue or pollution in the water is a really big issue and so they could choose different things they want to turn on or off and start customizing. So in addition to that, we have had some conversations with local departments of education or different groups about maybe making some custom content for them. Yes. As well. So in Washington state, forest fires are really big for climate change over there. While on the east coast, they might be more concerned about flooding, but the local context of those problems is really important. And that's something we definitely want to be able to address more as well as we keep growing.

James Di Virgilio:

Now when I think about my educational background, Lindsey , I think of going to public school in Sarasota, discovering Oregon Trail, discovering Tank Wars, discovering these games that were very entertaining. I can't recall really many of the games I played that were educational. I also remember growing up hearing that educational TV would be a big thing, but PBS survives, but is it really accomplishing its goal? Video gaming and the video gaming industry, significantly dwarfs Hollywood, do you believe now is the right time for educational video games to actually take hold? Will it be different than my childhood? Where I would look at anything educational and say, that's not a game. I don't care what I'm doing in it. It's not this.

Lindsey Tropf:

Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of tech reasons, obviously just it's easier and faster for us to make games than it used to be. We're better at doing it, I mean, we've learned a lot. We have better communities, but one of the most important is really on the learning side as well. We have, for instance, a new set of science standards called the next generation science standards that are being adopted across the country. About 80% of students in the U.S. are now on these science standards. And what they say is, we don't want people to just know content anymore. These new science standards say our goal is to really develop scientific literacy, where people are solving their own problems and figuring it out themselves and actually doing hands on science experiences. And so it's a really great timing for us because that's what a good game looks like. A good game looks like me going in and solving a problem. And I know that might seem counterintuitive, when I say it that way, but if you're even playing Angry Birds, you are trying to figure out the best strategy for using the birds you have and how many you have to knock down the structure on the other side of the screen, every video game at its core is a learning process for you. And if I'm just trying to deliver content, I don't really have a good opportunity to engage in a real game play experience. But if I'm trying to, and the teachers are aligned with me now, and the teachers want experiences where the kids are problem solving and figuring out content on their own. That's what makes a perfect video game. And so that's why the timing is really nice right now that everyone's kind of shifting and trying to figure out what resources help us do this better in a classroom and the meetings I have are just so much excitement with educators right now.

James Di Virgilio:

And you're absolutely right that every game involves a core element of problem solving. I mean, Super Mario Brothers, right? One of the most popular games that came out when we were kids in the eighties, that game is entirely about problem solving, memorizing, where certain things are, beating the levels , learning the bosses and people loved it. I loved it. I mean, there's so many other games that I play that are just like that, including games I play today. But kids seem to know this is supposed to teach me something. Are you finding when you're testing out your game, when people are going on title align, that they are not having that experience, does it feel like Angry Birds to them or does it feel like Super Mario Brothers? Does it feel like they get lost in the world? Just like they would playing Fortnite or something else.

Lindsey Tropf:

I'm going to kind of challenge the assumption of the question that kids shouldn't realize they're learning in order for it to feel like a great video game. If you're actually learning and you're in the state of challenge, you're not bored, you're having fun. And so generally when I talk to kids, I say we're a video game that's based on science. And they say, cool. You know, it's really about the gameplay itself to them. And so they can tell their learning if they're in our video game. I mean, it's kind of hard to be trying to figure out how to breed the coolest dragon you can using genetic principles and not realize you're learning genetic principles. And for me, it's not about hiding that. It's about making that something worthwhile and fully engaging and fascinating for a kid to solve that problem, because I want to make this great dragon. And because the problem itself is interesting, which maybe I'm just a total nerd, cause that's my perspective. And maybe kids don't realize that their perspective when they first started the game, but that's what we see. They know they're learning, but it's not a negative necessarily. If the context of what they're doing is intriguing enough to them that they really want to do that. If that makes sense,

James Di Virgilio:

It does make sense, and in fact, that's a big mission of the Cade Museum, is to take science and engineering and make it accessible, make it something that is fun to learn and learning obviously should be fun. And I think video games are public educational television. It's sort of had a stigma and it's interesting, and then in 10 years, I think you're right. A lot of that has changed and I think people are more open to playing all sorts of games regardless of how they're tied. And the fun factor is the key. So, How do you go about designing a fun game that's around education? Is it exactly the same? If you, all of a sudden we're using Immerse Games to develop a recreational game, would you employ a lot of the same tactics? Is it basically the same thing only now you're putting science in verse something different?

Lindsey Tropf:

In a way, yes, because all game design has constraints. And so normally if I'm designing a game, maybe the constraints are less because if I'm not doing an educational game, maybe my constraints are around who I'm trying to target what their demographics are, what the kind of purpose and story of the game is what my budget is, and you have all of these things. We have all the same constraints. We just have a few extra ones which are while we're doing it, our goal rather than only being a goal of designing around, maybe a certain theme is okay, well, our theme is we're trying to teach a certain topic . So we want to design a system that allows for exploration of that. But that is very similar to any other idea that somebody generates for a commercial game. It's just that our ideas is that let's engaged with this scientific concept instead, some of the constraints we have that are more challenging might be that for instance, we don't want to introduce incorrect concepts. So sometimes someone has a really funny, especially gameplay idea that we think would be really great to include, but it could lead to a misconception being introduced. So we have to be careful around that. Another constraint challenge when making a good educational game by far, is the actual realities of classroom usage. So we have to recognize that teachers might want to engage in our content in a variety of ways, time periods. They might want to teach it in a different order than we intended and so, that's by far our bigger constraints , if we didn't have to worry about that, it would actually be a lot easier to make it just feel exactly like a normal commercial game that just happens to be science.

James Di Virgilio:

So, you're in ABD, which I love that term and all, but dissertation and education, right? So you're almost a PhD maybe that never happens, maybe it doesn't, I'm sure that you didn't dream of becoming an entrepreneur when you started your PhD. Right?

Lindsey Tropf:

Correct.

James Di Virgilio:

And then this comes upon you and you get into it. What has life been like for you Lindsey as an entrepreneur? This has been, I think a five now, maybe on year six for you ride, you've won several pitch competitions. You move to Buffalo after winning a $500,000 prize and a very prestigious competition last year. A lot of great things have happened for Immerse. Walk me through the beginning of when you actually started to form this company and then bring me up to present day.

Lindsey Tropf:

Yeah, so I started looking into educational games for my dissertation. I obviously had been a gamer myself personally, so I saw a lot of passion around educational games. When I entered my PhD program, I think I was maybe going to be a practitioner for a bit and school psychology in schools, and then become a professor or maybe straight to being a professor and doing research and creating things that way. But when I really started looking at what existed for educational games, cause I wanted to pick something to study for my dissertation, as an educator, I saw a few problems first, that mostly educational games are really shallow out there. And then you found a really good educational game that was this fragmented experience. And so I kind of accidentally had developed a mental model of what a great educational game should look like by linking all of my learning around what schools need and what the learning theory is to my experiences gaming. And so when I realized that didn't exist, it was really, well, I guess it needs to exist. So I was an educator, I had run another business before, just a small business doing photography and I did that from undergrad to during grad school as well. And that gave me a lot of skills as well, to feel like I can solve problems, but running a service business is very different than creating a high tech startup, making an intense educational video games . So, I had some skills I had to learn a lot more. And so I started recruiting co-founders at first, we actually put up an internship program. I didn't really know how to get started on making a video game . So we just joined a game making club on campus and then sort of recruiting people to be interns found some co-founders out of that process instead that were just too phenomenal just to be interns. And so started building things. We first, in 2014, ran a Kickstarter to just support making an initial beta version of it. And that got our first couple of people paid, not me. I was kind of working on my dissertation, but not really doing that for a , for that kind of year, while I was still enrolled in school. And then 2015, we got our first round of funding after what we had built from the Kickstarter and kind of showing that as a prototype, getting some initial validation there and started building out from there. The first thing we did is we realized that we needed to make things a little smaller for our first project to really get feedback on the game , play how fun it was, what those cycles were like. So we made a small version of some of the gameplay that it's been a big game title online. We made something called, Tideway Ecology First, and we sold that on STEAM to not just educators, in fact, mainly millennials, just people who wanted to play a fun science nerdy game . So now we're probably at about 30,000 people who have purchased that with a 43% upsell rate for expansion packs. And that got us a lot of early experience, some initial revenues of validation, and then we've gotten grants with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education for some more funding. And then that kind of brings us to today, which is where we are. We're really starting to just commercialize out of betas and pilots and actually getting the full school product sold to people to really use at a wider scale of XDR . So it's been a long journey to get there. Things like this definitely takes some time.

James Di Virgilio:

Absolutely. And if you could go back and give yourself advice, what are a couple of words of wisdom you would have given yourself a here's what the next five or six years are going to look like, focus on these things, or don't worry so much about these things. What would be some of those nuggets of wisdom?

Lindsey Tropf:

I think a lot of it are things that I've just learned about maybe our customers and our niche originally, I was actually thinking that we would start by selling to consumers and then switch to schools later. And then we realized that the reverse made more sense, but there's a lot of kind of unique things to our company and why that is the education market and stuff that wouldn't necessarily be that useful as just general advice. So, there's a lot that we've just learned about our customer segments . So I suppose I could have done a lot more customer discovery interviews from the very beginning to maybe figure some of that out a little faster and stuff so that, because we've had to make a lot of changes to the product since we started with a consumer focus and we switched to a school focus and I thought, okay, we'll make some teacher tools, but it's ended up being a lot more changes than we originally realized that to make that transition for how we were originally thinking of it. And that's my very applicable advice, even though I, you know, an education person with tons of experience and thought I knew enough about it still going out and doing a lot of customer discovery interviews. And I had mainly focused on parents actually thought we were going to sell to consumers at first and schools later, I , I should have interviewed school people even earlier in the process. And maybe we would have figured some of that out and could have cut a few iterative cycles that have taken us some time out of the process and gotten here faster.

James Di Virgilio:

Yeah, I think flexibility is definitely one of the most important things for an entrepreneur is you undertake a task, you have a plan of action and you recognize that maybe I need to make some alterations to this plan and that sort of a lifelong adjustment as we look into the future, we look into this year, right? Your first time being commercially available to schools, so to speak, you've obviously been available in other formats. There are lots of competitors in the space. Are there any competitors trying to do a massive online player game like yours?

Lindsey Tropf:

Not really. And there was something that got released recently from the people who made ABC Mouse. So they did actually release a multiplayer and for the gamer lingo and MMO RPG is the same type of game here, but they're targeting younger students starting at about eight years old and more towards consumers. I imagine that they will do some for schools, but our design is just very different too , in terms of our focus on inquiry, exploration based problem solving. But I just very rarely see other people have, there are a few competitors that are maybe targeting similar demographics in terms of middle school science and meeting the science standards that we all have very different approaches, but I definitely respect the work they're doing too. So I think our competitors are more along that line. Like other people who are maybe making platforms, either pulling in different games to make it easier for teachers to use 20 or 30 different games in their classrooms on a single platform or things like that that are work. Other people are doing too,` so regularly talk to the founders of those competitors, which is always interesting because we're also just trying to move the whole industry forward together too , because there's so much potential that we all see for what educational games can do and offer teachers that it's nice to even share with your competitors.

James Di Virgilio:

Yeah. It's interesting to be in one of the largest industries in the world, and yet you really are in a frontier market, but you're trailblazing. You're doing something that has not really been done, which is obviously very exciting. And looking into the future, what has to go right in the next couple of years for this to become what you want it to become for you to say, this is exactly what I envisioned, what needs to happen.

Lindsey Tropf:

We're not going to reach my full vision in the next couple of years, but our next steps that we're really focused on are really the live implementations in schools, because we have people purchasing for next year right now. So we have some larger deployments and some smaller ones scheduled for this coming year from working with an educational service agency that serves 59 school districts in Washington state to small private schools here in Buffalo. And so, really for us right now, it's about making sure that that implementation process is as smooth as possible. So that just the realities of when kids in a classroom with a teacher are using it, that it doesn't have a lot of friction for them. And that there's just not a bunch of unforeseen issues coming up and I'm sure there will be. So we really need to knock those out and prove it as quickly as possible when we hear feedback or anything that's frustrating people around the process, unless it's frustrating, just because it's good learning sometimes that happens. But really, that's what I'm really focused on right now is we need that to go really well. And then we'll start taking our next steps on kind of the full vision of what this company is going to be is not only a video game or we're making science content, but partnering with third parties to use this as an experiential learning platform, that people can start putting their own content on and remixing it in a variety of ways. And that's not going to be the next couple of years. So, we're never going to get there unless the next couple years work and go strongly. We prove out our use case with science teachers in the country right now and then we can start building out to some of those longer term visions that we have.

James Di Virgilio:

No that's right. The greatest journeys, the beginning continue one step at a time, right? As a last closing thought, what is some advice you would give to some aspiring entrepreneurs regardless of their age, whether they're starting a second career or third career, or if they're middle schoolers , what would you tell them, hey, if you're going to become an entrepreneur view life this way or pursue things this way?

Lindsey Tropf:

I think there's probably two things that I often see that I think would be helpful for people to understand better. The first is really perspective taking. When you think about things like customer discovery and having these conversations with customers, there's so many people that are still in love with their own idea, and certainly I am in love with what we're building, but actually being able to take the perspective of customers, of partners and using that to design something and having empathy for their experiences. And I think that, that is something that has been immensely helpful for us, just my understanding of those individuals that we're interacting with and how we can make their lives easier. And I really enjoy the authentic relationships that I have with educators because of that. And I just see a lot of entrepreneurs that are trying that classic sense, create this reality distortion field around themselves and just push this thing through, regardless of these other people's needs. And that's not really the way most businesses actually succeed. You need to have that empathy and perspective taking of the people that you're trying to fill a need for in a true sense, not just trying to shoe horn, what you want to do into their world. And so I think that's just a really important perspective to take when you're doing that. And then I guess on the other side of things is also just focusing on creating something of value and learning some of those skills yourself to make things happen. I just talked to a lot of people who are super excited about an idea and don't necessarily have any skillsets brings us able to make that happen, and they're trying to get co-founders to come join or people to work for them. And that's really challenging unless you have something really strong to bring to the table. And so, generally I have to help people kind of explore that a little bit or push back on what you can bring to the table and that may be the business sales side, but make sure that you understand what that really means in early stage startup too. Which is going to be again, a lot of perspective, taking a customer discovery and that it's actually moving you forward in a significant way that it's worth everyone's time. It's working on a team with you.

James Di Virgilio:

She is Lindsey Tropf, the founder and CEO of Immerse Games, ABD and education Lindsay , thanks so much for joining us, fascinating to learn all about what you're doing and what you're working on. And we certainly here at Radio Cade wish you nothing but success here in the future.

Lindsey Tropf:

Thanks so much. I hope to make it back to Gainesville soon and see what's going on at Cade, I'm glad I got to experience some of the new buildings before we left.

James Di Virgilio:

Things are going really well and we love to have you back for the listeners out there that don't know, Lindsey has been immensely helpful with our educational programming, and we're certainly thankful for that Lindsey and we miss you. We know you're in Buffalo, enjoying the lovely summer weather up there, but we look forward to seeing when you come back.

Lindsey Tropf:

Thanks so much, have a wonderful afternoon.

James Di Virgilio:

You too, for Radio Cade I'm James Di Virgilio.

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support, Liz, Jist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and vendor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme, Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song, featuring violinist, Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.