Article by Tracee Davis, The Sheridan Press
Tuesday March 18, 2014
SHERIDAN — The Sheridan Programmers Guild has been awarded a grant from the Wyoming Business Council that will enable the company to develop software that helps students study remedial math. The Phase 0 Wyoming Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer Programs are designed to give small companies a chance to compete for additional funding from other federal agencies.
SPG founder Anne Gunn explained that while at first it seems counterintuitive to get a grant to write a grant, it’s really a means to an end that facilitates a business like hers to do original research. “For a small business like mine, it’s a huge project,” she said. “Just to get to the point of writing a successful grant can be a huge endeavor. You have to do research and pull a team together out of your own pocket.” Gunn said writing grants is a study and time intensive undertaking, and that while larger corporations competing for federal dollars often have resources to splurge on a seasoned writer that luxury is out of reach for many small businesses.
The Phase 0 SBIR/STTR Initiative provides money to tie over a small business during the phases of concept development and grant writing. The program is a way of ensuring innovation conducted by independent, small groups isn’t marginalized by the purchasing power of larger businesses. “As far as I know, the state of Wyoming is the only state that has an organized program for these small planning grants to encourage people to apply for larger grants,” Gunn said. The Phase 0 grant was issued in the amount of $5,000 and will cover research, interviews, initial software development and ultimately, additional grant applications to commercialize the product. “This (Wyoming SBIR/STTR Initiative) Phase 0 award will enable the Sheridan Programmers Guild to develop a nationally competitive Phase I SBIR proposal for submission to the U.S. Department of Education,” explained WSSI Director Gene Watson in a press release. “If their Phase I proposal receives a $150,000 Department of Education Phase I SBIR award, they will then become eligible to compete for a $1 million Phase II award which should be sufficient to allow them to commercialize their math remediation web apps.”
SPG has a background in developing educational software and has released two learning games in the past two years. The first is a program for graduate level pharmacy students to study infectious diseases and antibiotics, and the second focuses on undergraduate scientific material.
The free memorization games available at www.studyputty.com cater to students of biology, chemistry and nursing and provides a platform to review the periodic table, classifications of antibiotics and other foundational elements that are internalized by students only by review and repetition. SPG Content and Marketing Specialist Bret Norwood said the “Study Putty” site, “where cool kids go to scrape by on tests,” features a theme common with ongoing aspirations to make learning fun by acknowledging that dry, monotonous review is an onerous gateway to more interesting advanced learning. “The attitude we’re taking here is memorization is a necessary evil in education. It’s not fun. Come here and get it done and over with quickly,” Norwood said. “We hope to convey this isn’t straight-faced and serious, so there’s an amount of irony to the subversion of how educational things usually are.” When it comes down to it, education is a serious thing, but SPG app themes include a healthy dose of commiseration with a struggling student. “We’re trying to make light of what they’re struggling with and make it feel more acceptable,” Norwood said.
The narrow niche targeted by the SPG was identified by pre-SBIR season research. “We were already working on study games for instructionally level science students, and part of the process is validating that market, understanding what we could provide that has value,” Gunn said, indicating much of that research involved in-depth conversations with educators.”An interesting thing was that science instructors kept coming up with the same thing, which they said different ways,” Gunn said. “Although their students were struggling with material, the students they felt the most for were the ones they never saw that got stuck in developmental classes.” The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education collaborates the sentiment Gunn noticed, and acknowledges that as much as 60 percent of students who enter nonselective higher education institutions find they need to take remedial math or English courses before they can begin freshmen-level college classes. In taking those classes, the fire to learn smolders while students are delayed in studying their area of interest and rack up debt. “They had career goal in mind to do nursing or pharmacy tech, welding, carpentry, but never got to courses in that subject because they were stuck in the developmental sequence that took so long and was so discouraging they never got to the content courses that were why they went back to school in the first place,” Gunn said. “When you begin reading about this, it floors you there’s as much need for remediation,” Gunn said, adding that while more than a dozen major non-governmental organizations have been created to address the problem in developmental education, most of them work at a structural level and focus on enhancing high school effectiveness. However, there’s not much out there for the students who missed crucial instruction and somehow wound up at college without the required skill set to start advanced classes. While the majority of expertise is focused on preventing the problem in the first place, SPG has taken a different route and developed products to be delivered directly to the students in question to help them start working their way up and out of the remedial trap. “We’re trying to provide the market with additional study tools that are different,” Gunn said, indicating a student-centered study app that can be applied on a desktop,tablet or phone is a more convenient way to access students from the platforms they use most.
The app currently under development by the SPG centers on a cartoonish character who is stranded on Mars, which turns out to be inhabited by evil mathematicians. The character begrudgingly works through a series of math problems to resolve the situation. Gunn emphasized that the SBIR grant is unique in that it provides funding for software research and development that might not have otherwise taken place and sets the business up for maximal capital success.
“The unique thing from the business perspective is that the government basically pays you to develop intellectual property you own,” Gunn said. “If you get funds from a bank, you have to pay back the loan. If you use an investor, then that investor owns a piece of the product. In this case, the feds don’t take ownership in anything. Instead, you do quality research and publish it.” SPG is one of several Sheridan-based businesses that have been awarded Phase 0 SBIR awards. The others this time around include Kennon Products, Inc., Lightstrength Engineering Services, LLC.