Prisms Raised Funding From A16z to Teach Kids STEM in Virtual Reality

  • Virtual reality has become a growing trend in edtech, including startups that make VR classwork.
  • As VR headsets become more affordable, more schools can purchase them for classroom learning.
  • Now, a new startup is using VR to teach STEM lessons in K-12 schools more effectively.

Adoption of virtual-reality software as a tool for workplace training has become more mainstream in the past year, and now the technology could be headed into your local K-12 schools.

At least that’s what Anurupa Ganguly, an education expert and Prisms founder, is hoping for. After studying engineering and computer science at MIT, working as a teacher with Teach for America, and leading math and science education for charter-school organization Success Academy, Ganguly found that American schools were failing to engage most of their students when teaching math and science .

“One of the top indicators of success in STEM is the ability to spatially reason, or rotate 3D objects in your mind and maintain perspective about objects,” Ganguly said. However, most math-lesson plans rely too heavily on memorization and regurgitation, and do not help children understand math and geometry in a spatial context, she explained.

“Kids should be able to experience something spatially through doing and moving, but we haven’t had the tools to scale it even though teachers want to do it,” she said.

Ganguly built her first VR-class model — with the help of animators and designers — on exponential functions in algebra, or math problems surrounding exponential growth. They created a virtual scenario where a virus begins to spread inside a dining hall, and students have to calculate the spread of the virus.

They tested it out in a pilot program in 2021 with research-grant money from the National Science Foundation, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “The kids told me, ‘That was the first time I understood what an exponential function was,’ because they derived it from their body and series of experiences,” she said. “That’s when I knew we were onto something.”

Now, Prisms has raised $4.25 million in a seed round led by A16z (Andreessen Horowitz) to expand its algebra and geometry curriculum into schools across the US. Additional investors in the round include WXR Fund, Anorak Ventures, Avalanche VC; Nate Mitchell, the co-founder of Oculus; Andrew Sutherland, the founder of Quizlet; Hans Tung, the managing director of GGV Ventures; and Zahir Dossa, the founder of Function of Beauty, among others.

Over 20,000 students currently use Prisms, and it is compatible with multiple VR headsets like Pico and Oculus. The team hopes to grow to 100,000 students in 65 school districts across 15 states by this fall.

Ganguly thinks that the educational setbacks from online schooling combined with the increase in federal pandemic-relief money to schools have made educators more willing to try new technologies in their classrooms. “I think that right now, kids are coming back multiple years behind in math, and districts are desperately looking for ways to accelerate learning so that kids aren’t falling into remedial spirals, and there’s an unprecedented amount of money in the system,” she said.

“I really fundamentally believe that VR headsets and devices are going to be the next Chromebook in terms of one-to-one adoptions,” she said.

Prisms is joining a small, but growing crowd of VR lesson-plan startups that cater to teaching school-age children through virtual reality. Other companies include the 360-video chemistry-lab simulator Labster or ELB Learning’s CenarioVR, which offers a customizable geography module for social-studies teachers, said John Blackmon, CEO of CenarioVR.

“The thing about VR is you have much higher retention value than with traditional learning because of the experiential nature of it,” said Blackmon. “It’s the act of doing that’s accessing your longer-term memory.”

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