Math game transforms education

- Burlington, Ontario

Students in grades 3 and 4 at N.H. Wixon Innovation School in South Dennis, Massachusetts, sharpen their math skills with Prodigy, a free interactive math game developed by SMARTeacher of Burlington, Ontario, with the help of the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP). Credit: Elizabeth Slevin.

Everyone agrees that math skills are important for lifelong success. In our online world, using gaming technology to help kids build these important problem-solving and analytical skills seems obvious.

Seizing the challenge to make math fun and engaging for kids, Rohan Mahimker and Alex Peters, recent grads from the University of Waterloo, founded SMARTeacher in 2011 to bring educational math software into the 21st century.

Based in Burlington, Ontario, the company turned to the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) to help develop and scale-up their math game, Prodigy, now used by millions of grade-school children in Canada and the United States.

"We were still at university when we realized that educational software had not kept up with improvements in gaming technology," explained Alex Peters, co-CEO of SMARTeacher. "Math makes a lot of kids anxious, and that gets in the way of learning. We wanted to design a game where kids could play at the right level to build confidence, then stretch to learn more. Too many kids are left behind."

"Our vision is to transform education," added Peters. "And we wanted to build and grow our company here in Canada."

Teachers can incorporate the game into their lesson planning and check the analytics as they go to see how each child is progressing. Colourful characters keep the children's attention and motivate them to progress further into the game and the learning materials. The company also has an optional in-game membership that parents can purchase to unlock extra game content, but which has no impact on the educational quality for the child.

Bringing educational software into the 21st century

After testing the content with two private grade schools in southern Ontario, Peters and Mahimker turned to IRAP in early 2012 for help with developing a robust technology platform. IRAP's support enabled the company to hire several young software developers in an otherwise expensive market they could not afford without help.

SMARTeacher's team celebrates their 5th anniversary. With Prodigy reaching over 13 million students in Canada and the US, the company plans to expand into the United Kingdom and new subject areas. IRAP contributed to the SMARTeacher story with technical advice and support to hire young software developers in an expensive market. Credit: SMARTeacher.

"Building a viable game is labour intensive and costly," said Andrew Bauder, the Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) who first worked with the company. "It's very important to hit the ground running with a stable platform. The software needed the capability to accommodate a large number of players at the same time, while simultaneously collecting, analyzing, and reporting back on a massive amount of data."

"SMARTeacher nailed it," said Vance Pan, the ITA who now works with the company. "To get the business strategy, the gameplay, and the scalability working so well so quickly is an incredible accomplishment for two entrepreneurs right out of university."

Prodigy quickly caught on. In 2014, 130,000 students from the Hamilton, Niagara and Peel school boards were playing. By 2015, 1.2 million students were enjoying Prodigy across Canada and the United States. By 2016, that number had swelled to 4.3 million students.

The next challenge became scaling the technical platform while keeping its reliability. The company approached IRAP again for support to hire back-end developers to address scaling bottlenecks and to enhance the functionality of the game. They wanted to add new characters and features so students could see each other playing at the same time.

"We were so impressed with IRAP's flexibility," said Peters. "You never really know how the tech stack – or software components – are going to work when you first start out. The ITAs were amazing, working with us to create a technology development plan that made sense."

Putting Canada on the map

"We were so impressed with IRAP's flexibility… The ITAs were amazing, working with us to create a technology development plan that made sense."

Alex Peters, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, SMARTeacher

The result is a powerful educational tool that is helping a new generation of students around the world build their math literacy so they may thrive in a digital world. In January 2017, Prodigy had 13 million students signed on. Of these, 85 per cent were in the United States.

SMARTeacher itself is also growing – expanding from a bootstrap team of two entrepreneurs in 2011 to 65 full-time employees at the beginning of 2017.

"IRAP has been a big part of our story," emphasized Peters. "They were always challenging us to think strategically and made key introductions to potential advisors."

With plans to expand into new markets, such as the United Kingdom, and to launch into other subject areas, SMARTeacher is putting Canada on the map with its vision to transform education globally.

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