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Turning Research Into A Viable Ed Tech Company With Federal Support

Too few students leave school equipped with the math or science skills to get them a job in a STEM field. A 2023 survey shows that while the majority of students are interested in a STEM career, a third say schools are not doing a good job preparing them for it. Meanwhile, the quality and affordability of STEM resources vary considerably from school to school and district to district.

 

Federal investment in research and development (R&D) can change that by providing researchers and entrepreneurs with the funding needed to ideate and develop innovative solutions to this critical problem. BirdBrain Technologies is a good example of how federal R&D investments enabled the company’s founder, Tom Lauwers, to turn his graduate research into a profitable company that has provided effective hands-on STEM learning tools to 1 million students.

BirdBrain develops and sells two programmable robotics products – the Hummingbird Kit and the Finch Robot. These products are designed to serve students from kindergarten to college by providing them with a simple and interactive way to learn computer programming, computational thinking, engineering, and math and science skills.

 

As a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, Lauwers was fascinated with robotics and learning science. He was most interested in figuring out a way to develop an easily accessible robot that would help students learn computer science. At CMU’s CREATE Lab, Lauwers designed robotic kits that he tested with students in middle schools, high schools, community colleges, and after-school programs. After developing workable prototypes with the feedback he received from students and teachers, Lauwers believed his robotic kits could be a gateway to engaging, hands-on STEM learning for students who otherwise might not have ever been exposed to it.

 

BirdBrain has benefitted from approximately $2.54 million in federal education R&D funding:

National Science Foundation, Small Business Technology Transfer Program: $1.04 million to develop new product lines

National Science Foundation, Math and Science Partnership: $1.5 million to Carnegie Mellon University to study the effectiveness and scale of BirdBrain's products

 

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Critical to making that happen were grants from the National Science Foundation that accelerated BirdBrain’s development with Small Business Technology Transfer awards. This funding helped Lauwers take his graduate research in learning science and turn it into a viable ed tech company. Local philanthropies also contributed just under $400,000.

 

“We had a hypothesis that designing robotic tools to meet specific learning goals and learner needs would work better than adapting existing educational toys to the classroom, and the federal funding allowed us to explore that hypothesis and develop it,” Lauwers said. “It allowed us to find out what would and would not work through careful, unhurried study that involved multiple years of designed-based research and classroom pilots. We incorporated feedback from hundreds of students and over a dozen teachers into the designs that became BirdBrain’s first products.”

 

As of 2023, BirdBrain had sold or made available to schools and community groups over 150,000 robots that have been used by an estimated 1 million students. Studies looking at the impact the kits have had on student achievement and their outlook on STEM careers show positive effects. At a university that was redesigning its introductory computer science curriculum, the inclusion of BirdBrain robotic kits was associated with a nearly 10 percent increase in the course’s passing rate, from 74 percent to 81 percent.

 

BirdBrain’s kits also contribute to increased motivation and confidence for students in STEM courses. A study of middle school girls attending a summer camp for underserved youth found that using the kits increased their confidence and their interest in computer science as a career choice. According to another study of 13 middle school classes (totaling 230 students), BirdBrain-based robotics projects led to significant improvements in students’ technical skills and in their motivation to learn math and science. They also gained confidence in those subjects.

 

Lauwers realizes that even though BirdBrain’s kits are modestly priced, many schools and community programs still struggle to purchase them. That’s why, in 2013, BirdBrain started a “library” program where qualifying organizations can borrow up to 15 kits for up to six weeks at a time at no charge. This loaner program has exposed approximately 250,000 under-served students to robotics, computer programming, and other STEM skills.

 

“The loan program is the purest embodiment of our mission, which is to inspire deep and joyful learning in ALL students. I set it up very early on in the company’s history - before I hired a single employee. While reaching all students is certainly an aspirational goal, the loan program was my way of removing one barrier to reaching as many kids as possible.”

 

BirdBrain’s development from graduate research to a profitable company shows how federal R&D funding can spur innovation and economic development at the same time. Based in Pittsburgh, BirdBrain today employs 10 people and produces sales of approximately $5 million annually.

 

BirdBrain is a great example of how a modest investment from the federal government gave rise to a profitable company that is working to open students’ eyes and imaginations to the possibilities of STEM learning. And at a time when math achievement is plummeting, investments like this in education R&D are more important than ever.

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