We sat down with Jamie Caras the founder of Sapling Learning, to talk about his journey and what inspired him to build a series of companies working at the intersection of science learning and technology. Here’s an excerpt from the interview.
I was on the typical PhD track at the University of Texas in biochemistry. My PI was a digital artist and I had some background in programming and web development, so we started building molecular visualizations for biochemistry. We called them biomolecular tours, 3D visualizations of active sites and enzymes. We used these to teach biochemistry and we found them really effective. Students loved to see the 3D stuff on the giant screen in the classroom. With a lot of positive feedback, we started getting featured in conferences and winning awards. This was in 1998.
Publishers asked us to produce instructional CDs for the back of textbooks. I was surprised when they told me the budget was $60,000, because I just assumed I would be doing it for free! We formed a company called Science Technologies and put lots of multi-media CDs in textbooks. Unfortunately, this fantastic content was rarely used, as it was not tied to a grade. We hooked up a quizzing system to the visualization content, which was very cutting edge at the time. This move into assessment lead to the founding of Sapling Systems. We licensed our system to publishers. We had a molecular visualization engine and had also figured out ways to grade reaction mechanisms and students’ drawings of molecules.
About this time, I was teaching at UT and remember my students performing poorly on the midterm. I asked them to be honest about their studying. About 60% of the class admitted that they had tried to do 5 weeks of work in the last 48 hours before the exam. That’s when I really focused on the homework system, solving the problem of getting students to engage on a regular basis with rigorous problem-solving. This was the start of Sapling Learning, which we eventually sold to Macmillan.
We started Catalyst, to solve the problem of student engagement in lab. Because success in lab, and gaining a lot more out to the experience, depends on students understanding what is going on. Students need to know the steps to be taken in a certain order and what the goals are.
Also, lab coordinators at big schools need to be able to deliver this content in lab courses at scale. One of the big challenges is with managing TAs and to achieve grade consistency across a broad spectrum of sections. We are helping TAs, many of whom have never taught before, improve on their performance with feedback and analytics.
I just recently interviewed a student at Texas Women’s University. She was repeating the course and said that the LabFlow platform really helped this semester. She could do a lot of preparatory work by watching videos of each technique and how to use specific equipment. She also said it was tremendously helpful that her lab partner also prepared. She could count on someone else and reduce her anxiety about the lab course.
Students doing the rigorous problem-solving work of science need all the help they can get. If we can provide a way for them to experience the wonder of science with less frustration, we can inspire them to persist in their STEM degree. That’s very important to me.