Boise State's first startup is on the go

Conceived on campus, a game-based teaching platform branches out as a private business

krodine@idahostatesman.comJune 19, 2013 

  • NOAA CHOOSES GOGO

    Boise-based GoGo Labs received a $150,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is partnering with the federal agency to launch Planet Stewards, a quest-based learning and science program for middle and high school students. With it, students can explore 15 career pathways, from marine biologist to weather forecaster.

    Teacher training begins July 1 online. Up to 500 middle and high school science teachers can take the training for free. Some spaces are still available, GoGo Labs CEO Lisa Dawley said. Go to noaaplanetstewards.org for more information.

When she first heard of 3D GameLab, high school language arts teacher Bonnie Warren was intrigued, but a little suspicious.

"I had a lot of questions about it being too gamified," she said. "So I took their summer teacher's camp and I got sold."

Shortly after completing the camp last summer, Warren was one of 500 teachers across the nation and beyond who used the game-based system in their classrooms for beta testing of the new learning platform.

"Kids do a lot more work under it than the previous grading system and they do better work," said Warren, who teaches 10th graders at South Fremont High School in St. Anthony. "Anything that'll get my kids interested, I'm all about that."

Created by two World of Warcraft-loving professors in Boise State University's Department of Educational Technology, 3D GameLab uses a gaming format that helps students learn as they work their way through lessons in virtually any subject or grade level.

Now the software has spun off into a business led by one of GameLab's founders. Former department chairwoman Lisa Dawley left Boise State in July to form GoGo Labs and be its CEO. The platform debuted in the marketplace May 1.

Dawley's business is the first startup company launched by Boise State. President Bob Kustra heralded it as "a great byproduct of ... the mechanisms now in place to encourage entrepreneurship on our campus."

Dawley's co-founder, Chris Haskell, remains at Boise State but is active in GoGo as principal researcher. The technology still belongs to the university.

Boise State owns the patent and the software, which is now licensed to GoGo Labs.

"It's the same thing as if you worked at Micron - what you invent when you're there is theirs," said Mary Andrews, Boise State's director of university and industry ventures.

"We (GoGo) have global exclusive rights to the technology, to turn it into a business," Dawley said.

It took about seven months to work out the licensing agreement, which outlines how much profit will go to GoGo and how much to the university, she said, declining to reveal the breakdown.

"A significant portion" of Boise State's share will go to the inventors, Dawley and Haskell, Andrews said. Some will go to cover expenses such as copyright and patent fees. The rest will help fund investigation of other opportunities for university entrepreneurs, she said.

"She (Dawley) has proven there's a market for it," said Andrews. "She has revenue and that speaks volumes. She's getting repeat traction in the marketplace."

HOW THE SOFTWARE WORKS

Teachers build quests that students will use to reach learning goals. Students follow the quests, rising through levels and earning badges. The learner is the hero of a quest.

Warren started the school year with 83 quests to share with students and ended up with 953, most of which she built herself.

Students don't move to the next quest until they get the previous one right, and complex tasks and lessons are "scaffolded" into numerous quests that help students feel momentum and success as they proceed, Warren said.

She described one assignment she gave her 10th-graders, to write a paper about how Macbeth changed through the course of Shakespeare's play.

"This is literary analysis and that's hefty stuff," Warren said. But using GameLab, students who would normally balk embraced the task and did "A" work.

"It took 13 quests to get the paper built," she said. "They do it in chunks and they know each chunk is right when they're done."

MORE TIME FOR FEEDBACK

If people think a game-based learning platform isolates students with their computers rather than fostering teacher interaction, those people should think again, Warren said. Her students work without computers more than they do with them, she said. When they are on laptops, they derive ample input from each other and their teacher. Warren monitors their progress through the quests and suggests revisions as they go.

The GameLab platform keeps track of student progress and results, freeing the teacher from recording grades for each exercise.

"I've never had time to give that much feedback before," Warren said. "I was too busy managing the paper load. Now the system does it for me."

A FIRST FOR BSU

More startups are in the works at Boise State, Andrews said, but the process is slow and the time frame uncertain. She said the most fertile ground for intellectual property with commercial potential tends to be in three areas: materials science and engineering, sensor development and computer platforms, and biomolecular science and chemistry.

"Commercialization is not a core function of the university," Andrews stressed. "Universities are here to educate and do research, and faculty are here to teach and do research.

"However, with our growing research and the growing entrepreneurial culture, we have the beginnings of an infrastructure to support those activities," she said, "and the innovation and licensing bring benefits back to the community and Idaho."

REFINING THE PRODUCT

The company holds online teacher camps to help educators learn how to use the gaming platform and build quests. Teachers must pay $245 each for a one-year membership that delivers access to the system and additional teacher camps.

This summer the company plans to start offering monthly memberships. Later, it plans to sell GameLab access for schoolwide or districtwide use.

Haskell used an early version of 3D GameLab in his educational technology classes and reported students using the platform did better, and worked more quickly, than their counterparts in a traditional classroom. And more than 65 percent of the students kept on questing even after they'd done everything necessary to earn an A in the course, he wrote as part of his doctoral work.

DAWLEY HOPES TO SELL

The plan for 3D GameLab was always to commercialize it in some way, Dawley said, with an expectation that a larger company will buy it in a few years.

"This is a bridge to help ready it for sale," she said. "It could happen in two years, but we're told to be prepared for it to take five to seven years."

When a big company swallows a startup, she said, it typically keeps the startup's CEO on hand to run the operation.

About 700 teachers in 13 countries have used the platform so far, with 300 more joining in July, she said. California has the largest number of teachers who have adopted GameLab, with Idaho second and North Carolina third. In Arizona, about 18 faculty members at Maricopa Community College use it.

TEACHER HOOKED

"Does it work for everyone? No, nothing does," Warren said. "But it works for more students and better than anything else I've tried. I would not want to teach without 3D GameLab again."

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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