Evolving Technologies Make STEM Learning Fun

By Betsy Vereckey, Contributor

Recess and old-fashioned workbooks are getting a long-awaited tech reboot.

Today, many elementary and middle school teachers are incorporating technology into their lesson plans to make learning fun.

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Here, we’ll take a look at three companies that are transforming the classroom by giving students the chance to collaborate with one another, learn valuable STEM skills, and, in some cases, even burn off energy.

Unruly Splats: Fun Stompable Floor Tiles That Teach Coding Skills

The idea to create Unruly Splats came to Bryanne Leeming, the company’s CEO, while she was earning her MBA from Babson College. “I saw that there was a gap in the market for tools that integrated active play with fundamental STEM concepts,” says Leeming, who still recalls all the fun she had coding games with a computer coding program called MicroWorlds as a child.

Boston-based Unruly Splats includes programmable buttons that light up and make weird and funny sounds when kids run, step, and jump on them. Not unlike the old-fashioned game Twister, kids can twist and turn their bodies, and use their hands to light up a Splat.

“With Splats, kids work and play and solve challenges together. It really provides a focus on social and emotional learning.”

—Bryanne Leeming, CEO, Unruly Splats

Through the Unruly Splats app, a tablet, and a Bluetooth connection, students in elementary and middle schools can create and program relay races, obstacle courses, and other games using Splats’ simple block-coding language. While Unruly Splats comes preloaded with exercises and challenges that range from a quick 20-minute game to a more complex debugging challenge—such as trying to figure out why a Splat didn’t light up—Leeming says that one of the joys of using Splats are the creative ideas that kids come up with. While there are 80 different sounds available—from animal noises to crowds cheering—kids can also record their own via the app and create their own games.

“Our original plan was that we would make a lot of games and just put them out there, but then we started talking to kids and realized they had amazing ideas, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we just open it up to them?’ They can start from nothing and create their own experience from the ground up,” says Leeming.

Teachers across 45 states are using Splats in the gym, in the classroom, and even in libraries. Leeming says that the game brings out collaboration in kids, which she believes is unique among other STEM tools. “With Splats, kids work and play and solve challenges together. It really provides a focus on social and emotional learning.”

Matific: Teaching Math Via Gamification

“Our goal is for students to have that Aha! moment,” says Scott Smith, the vice president of global development for Matific, which teaches math skills to elementary school students using gamification, a design approach that transforms seemingly mundane tasks into fun, game-like activities.

“Our goal is for students to have that Aha! moment.”

—Scott Smith, vice president of global development, Matific

“Many students entering middle school are unprepared for that level of math,” Smith says. Coming out of elementary school, “they lack basic math skills and are fearful of the subject.”

Most of Matific’s programs—which are available both online and offline—are math worksheets in the form of souped-up digital versions of what kids do in standard pencil-and-paper workbooks; there are lively videos of polygons with life-like faces, talking school buses that teach addition, and monsters who teach subtraction through their cherry-eating addiction.

Matific’s content is also tailored to each student’s pace: An auto-assign algorithm feature assigns the most relevant work to be tailored to a specific student’s needs. If, for example, a student was struggling with subtraction, the algorithm would assign more lessons on this topic for additional learning. In turn, teachers can monitor their students’ progress in real time and assign certain coursework if students need additional help.

Lü: An Interactive Theater Experience to Reboot Today’s Learning Environment

Vincent Routhier had always disliked technology’s isolating effect and knew there had to be a way that tech could bring kids together. Enter —Routhier’s ingenious invention that uses a projector, lights, and a 3D camera to create an immersive space by using the full gym space and floor.

When Routhier created an early prototype of Lü, he knew he had made something special. “We installed everything temporarily to the ceiling of the gymnasium, and when we saw the kids using it, we knew we had something really inspiring and powerful,” says Routhier, also a father.

“We are really working hard right now to make sure that we can create those spaces where kids can relax, reduce their anxiety level, and connect to themselves.”

—Vincent Routhier, CEO, Lü Interactive Playground

Based in Quebec, Lü delights with its massive projected touchscreen that can detect objects, such as balls or handprints. In one game, children throw balls at the wall to solve math problems; in another, they toss a ball to reveal Orion’s Belt or a world map. Teachers can create programs that require students to mimic an onscreen instructor—maybe that’s running in place for one minute, doing jumping jacks the next, or even meditating.

Importantly, Routhier says Lü isn’t just a game: The company’s vision is to cultivate well-rounded kids in both mind and body, and to give them social-emotional skills like confidence, empathy, and self-esteem. Says Routhier, “We are really working hard right now to make sure that we can create those spaces where kids can relax, reduce their anxiety level, and connect to themselves.”