Budding Biologist Interview with CEO Kris Duehl

Educational games have had a special place in our hearts since we learned to hunt for deer and budget for oxen in the days of Oregon Trail. Games should be fun–that’s a given. But games with an educational bent require a little extra love and attention. And that’s just what the developers of Lizard Island: Observation bring to the table. We sat down with Kris Duehl at Budding Biologist labs, to learn what all goes into building games to grow up with.

Mariah Beckman: Hey, and thanks so much for clearing a spot for us on your calendar! So, to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with? And what do you do, specifically?

Kris Duehl: I’m Kris Duehl, the CEO and Head of Business and Development for Budding Biologist. I make things run. I help decide which projects to do next and how to execute those projects. I also figure out how to raise funds for the projects, talk to potential investors, talk with the media, and run weekly board meetings. I write the manuscripts for the books, and verify the scientific accuracy of everything we do.

Who are you? And by you, I mean Budding Biologist. Can you summarize your mission statement? What’s the philosophy behind your vision? Where would you like to see Budding Biologist expand to in the coming months and years?

KD: Budding Biologist was founded by four women whose goal is to open young minds to science. In the next few years, we hope to release 2 more video games, continue to build our biology series of books, and start a physics and chemistry series for young children. We are also looking at expanding into other multimedia outlets.

Tell me a little about what got you started? How did you join forces, and what inspired you?

KD: When my son was first born, we received many children’s science books for him from well-meaning friends and relatives who knew that science was likely to play a large role in our son’s life. I was really dismayed when I saw the huge number of scientific inaccuracies in the books! There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction; if a book is supposed to be nonfiction parents should be able to trust that the information is correct, and that is absolutely not the case in children’s books.

I started wondering why I would read these books to my child and teach him the wrong information? When I tried to find books that were scientifically accurate, they were few and far between. I did find some that were for much older audiences – elementary age – and ones that were accurate but not visually stimulating. I was surprised that there was such a gap in the marketplace for fun and scientifically accurate books, so I decided to do something about it. On my maternity leave I started writing my first manuscript and teamed up with Katy [Castronovo], the illustrator, who I met through my birthing class. I knew she was an artist, and she got just as excited as I was about the project. Budding Biologist was born.

Katy and I quickly brought on two more team members, Karen Samuel Boley, an expert in early childhood education and Emily Zora, our head of business and finance.

And what can you tell us about Lizard Island?

KD: Lizard Island was created through a collaboration between Budding Biologist and ecologists at the University of California-Davis (Dr. Louie Yang and Dr. Kyle Edwards) and our amazing programmer (Walter Hsiao). The project got NSF funding through the Small Business and Innovative Research program in and started in July 2013. We wanted to create a game that allowed elementary school children to experience being an ecologist, even if they couldn’t get to outdoor spaces that allowed them to use their scientific skills. The game is the first in a series of 3 games and this game focuses on the skill of observation. The setting, and behaviors and interactions of the plants and animals are all based on decades of data collected by Dr. Yang and his lab on very small islands in the Bahamas. Dr. Edwards is a ecological modeler and was able to help Mr. Hsiao take the data and use it to make the game as scientifically accurate as possible.

We partnered with the Bohart Museum at UC-Davis to beta test the game with the kids that come through the museum. We were able to find out exactly what kids enjoyed about the game and things we needed to adjust. We had lines going through the whole museum of kids wanting to play the game. In fact, we had to impose a time limit on game play to allow others to have a turn; the kids would jump back in line after their turn was over to wait for another turn!

How difficult is it to create smart but accessible content for children? What kind of research does that entail, and how does that differ from creating any other video game title?

KD: I’m not sure how to answer this question. We love what we do so much it never really feels difficult or like work. However, this is what we’ve been trained to do – we’ve pulled experts from the different fields that re involved in creating our products. We made sure that Karen, our education expert, was involved in every step of the video game design so that she could make sure we were addressing Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, making sure the game was developmentally appropriate and could address the needs of both parents and teachers. I think that if the goal of the game is entertainment, it is a much different route to design the game. We needed to find the balance between fun and learning, and we did that with the help of the team and through extensive beta testing with our audience.

You recently received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support the development of this project. Do you think that this is just one great example of how tablet and PC based games are a developing as a burgeoning resource for educators?

Kris Duehl: Yes and no. Yes, educators are implementing technology in the classroom as a tool to keep kids engaged in learning and tailor lessons to individual abilities. The National Science Foundation along with the Department of Education recognize this trend and are helping to promote the best technology tools for teachers through funding of peer-reviewed projects.

No, when we tried to find biology-related video games for elementary school children we came up empty. There are several good games geared towards high school learners, but these are too complicated in concepts and in fine motor skills to apply to elementary children. There are lots of video games for teaching reading, writing and math for elementary school children, but science, especially biological science, is overlooked. Additionally, few video games for any level or subject promote science skills and build upon an inquiry style of learning – both of which are essential for promoting logical, scientific thought processes.

Karen Boley: Hi, this is Karen, the education director. An additional benefit to using video games as an educational resource is that everything you need it built right into the game. In an ideal education system, students would get to try real-life experiments. They would grow their own plants, observe animals, and mix chemicals. Unfortunately, due to cost, time, and location (some schools don’t even have outdoor areas where a garden can be grown), we know that hands-on experimentation is not possible for every school. Video games can provide the next best thing: accurate representations of the scientific process, but in a virtual world that requires no extra resources. A school can buy a game once and use it for years.

The release of Lizard Island: Observation aligns with news that LEGO will be releasing a set of science-themed occupational characters. Lady LEGOs, at that. Are there other unilateral efforts that you’re aware of that are being made to bring equality and depth to learning toys?

KD: Unfortunately the LEGO release of female science characters was a limited run; we feel that this points to an essential problem in the perception of science by large companies – undervaluing the wide spread interest in science. Additionally, while we are a female owned company and care deeply about retention of women in science, we try to keep our products gender neutral. We want to provide girls the same opportunities as boys – to see themselves as scientists. Toys that are specifically geared towards girls, such as the Goldieblox series, or the LEGO female scientist series, teaches girls that they need to have special accommodations to excel in science. Instead, we want to empower them to see themselves as scientists already.

I know that you have another book in production; what can you tell us about this, as well as about your current and impending titles? Can you tell us if you have plans to release another game for iOS, Android or Google Play any time soon? What are your goals for developing offerings on desktop?

KD: Books: We will be releasing “Am I a Mammal?” later this year. We aim to release at least one book a year. Future titles include topics on plants, marine life, adaptations and microorganisms. We are also looking to expand into physics and chemistry topics in the future.

Games: We have designed two more video games based of the same concept as Lizard Island. The second focuses on hypothesis creation and the third on experimentation. Each game will be developed through the profits from the previous game, as well as grants and private investment. We will start to develop the second game when the funding outlook is sufficient to support the project.

Cross Platform: The current version of the game will run on desktops, however there are limited features. Although we realize that schools already have desktops available and might have limited access to tablets, we are not focusing on desktops for several reasons. The first is that the lifespan of a non-touch screen desktop is limited. Schools are investing heavily in touch screen tablets and laptops and moving away from desktops. We want our game to be compatible with this future direction of technology at school and at home. Additionally, we want our game to be as accessible for a 1st grader as for a 5th grader. In testing, we recognized the power of the touch tablet to allow younger players and those with certain disabilities to interact with the game in a way that is not possible with a mouse and a computer. We have seen children aged 3 or 4 years catching lizards with ease because the touch interface is easy for them to manipulate.

One example of how our testing influenced our design: Adults always find it interesting that we use a two-finger scroll to move around the island, instead of one finger. What we found in beta testing was that when young children tried to scroll using their pointer finger alone, their middle finger’s knuckle dragged on the screen making it difficult to move appropriately. When we implemented the two-finger scroll, children were much more adept and moving around the island.

Have your games garnered any sort of awards or accolades? Do you have plans to submit your title/s for such an honor?

KD: We have not yet submitted our titles for awards yet, and will assess this possibility in the future.

Do parents reach out to you about the games and books that you’ve produced? What do they have to say?

KD: Everyone we hear from loves our games and books. We have heard very few criticisms, and when we do, we try to address those quickly.

Part of our business model is to engage the public in the process of designing our products. We encourage parents to like our Facebook page and Twitter account (@buddingbio) to become involved. We post a preview of each book on our Facebook page and allow fans to comment (either directly on the page, or anonymously through a link). We encourage parents to read the digital copy to their children and provide us feedback. We take each comment seriously and use them to finalize the products. This way we make sure that we are producing products that fit the needs and desires of parents and kids.

In your opinion, who else out there is making contributions to this genre? Where should interested parents look to for more quality content for their little ones?

KD: Unfortunately we find there are few choices for parents when it comes to scientifically accurate, inquiry based books and games for young children. There are good books for elementary school aged children; our books are geared for 0-6 years. When we do find quality products that pass our high expectations, we post them to our blog.

So, which games from your childhood inspired you to create Budding Biologist interactive games? Which were your favorites? How about books? (I loved Goodnight, Moon, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Day, just to jog your memory on some of those more dated titles.)

KD: Our game was inspired by several of the Sim games, like Sim Ant and Sim Earth, but geared towards younger players. We wanted the game to be more of an open-ended sandbox, than a linear adventure.

I, and my children, love Dr. Seuss. We also like Sandra Boynton books. While Eric Carl is beloved for his insect books, we tend to stay away from them because they also contain many not-so-evident misconceptions that are packaged in a non-fiction way.

Normally, I like to wrap things up with a fun question. My speaking with you aligns with the pregnancy of my very best friend. She’s an intelligent, educated woman, and she’s very curious about how to best equip her little one to begin learning at a young age. (I’m sure she’ll be excited to learn about the work you’re doing at Budding Biologists.) As she journeys towards motherhood, I’ve found myself wondering a lot about what it takes, on an individual level, to prepare yourself to teach another human being how to live from scratch. My fun question to you, then, is this: what are some of the most unexpected revelations about life that being a parent has taught you, and what should parents remember never to forget about preschool education and beyond?

KD: Kids are always learning, and I want to emphasize ALWAYS. Everything you do can be a lesson in discovery, it just depends on how you frame it. A simple task of picking up toys can be turned into a lesson on patterns when you ask the child to pick up toys of a certain color or shape. My advice to new parents is to engage with your children as often as possible.

Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing, and for sharing some of that with our readers. We hope to hear more about your developments soon!

You can learn more about Lizard Island: Observation and the wonderful work being done at Budding Biologist here.

Mariah Beckman

Mariah lives in Seattle, and is really 3 midgets inside a lady suit.

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