Andamio Games Receives Phase II SBIR Award from NSF

Grant supports development of a virtual lab and collaborative games to teach cell biology

Minneapolis, Minnesota: Educational technology innovator Andamio Games has been awarded a $728,000 Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation to support the development of collaborative games and a virtual lab environment for mobile devices that will help high school students learn difficult-to-teach STEM subjects.

The funding will underwrite a research project that brings together accomplished application development engineers from Andamio Games and local experts in biology instruction, learning science, and usability design. This team will design a series of tablet-based lessons and challenges to help high school students master concepts related to photosynthesis and cell respiration. Additional innovations funded by the grant include a virtual lab environment, the integration and analysis of real-world climate data, and classroom tools for teachers so they can differentiate instruction between General Biology and AP-level classes.

Andamio Games will partner with life science teachers from Saint Paul Public Schools to conduct a classroom study in the second year of the project. Lessons will be designed and research directed by leading science educators at the University of Minnesota, including: Sehoya Cotner, Associate Professor of Biology; Dr. Barbara Billington of the STEM Education Center at the College of Education and Human Development; and Christopher Desjardins, Research Associate at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.

Andamio Games’ patented method of mobile device collaboration is the cornerstone innovation that makes the NSF-funded project possible. The technology builds on the most recent thinking in educational psychology, affording teachers the ability to provide appropriately individualized instruction without separating students into ability-based groups.

“Science teacher feedback in Phase I of the project reconfirmed the value of our multi-player approach and also led us to the addition of a virtual biology lab,” says Andamio Games president Adam Gordon. “Teachers wanted their students to get a practical experience of scientific experimentation — including when it doesn't go quite as expected — independent of the usual costs and time commitments for conventional lab experiments.”

Andamio Games’ first product, iNeuron, is a collaborative mobile device game designed to help teachers improve neuroscience education in high-school biology and psychology classrooms. Version 2 has been downloaded over 85,000 times since its release in June, and was the subject of a year-long classroom evaluation study that will be published later this year.

About Andamio Games: Andamio Games® builds evidence-based mobile device games to make hard-to-learn subjects more engaging and accessible. Through a combination of scaffolded lessons, game-based assessments, interactive labs, and collaborative problem solving, Andamio aims to make classroom and workplace instruction more active, fun, and effective.

Interview with Dr. Katrina Schleisman

Katrina is the lead Instructional Designer for Andamio Games. She recently published an article on, "How To Make A Learning Game That Works." I caught up with Katrina just before her presentation at the White House for a Department of Education meeting on learning games research.

When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up? My first memory is that I wanted to be a mountain climber, which is a completely unfulfilled dream. I think I knew I wanted to go into a scientific field because my dad was an engineer, and he really encouraged me in science.

How did you become interested in neuroscience? My goal in college was to have a double major in pre-med and dance, and then I actually flunked out of my first three pre-med classes of fall semester — physics, organic chemistry, and calculus. After a little soul searching I became interested in psychology for the reasons any 19-year-old would, because you want to learn more about yourself. It seemed fascinating. So the next semester I didn't sign up for any science classes — I took Intro Psych and just got hooked on it. What I liked about the idea of going to medical school was the idea of doing medical research. I wanted to understand the human body, not necessarily provide medical care, and psychology seemed like an interesting way to do that.

What was the moment when you realized psychology is science, too? As it turned out, I became a double major in psychology and philosophy, and my big internal debate was, "Am I going to go on in psychology or philosophy?" because in both disciplines you get to study the mind, just from totally different perspectives. At some point I think I realized I can still do philosophy as a psychologist, but I'm going to have evidence and data to back it up. I won't be just sitting in an armchair and dreaming about stuff. So I could still do philosophy, but it would have more rigor.

I ended up taking a course called Cognition, Computation and Brain, taught by Chad Marsolek at the UMN who studies visual cognition and memory. He was a very charismatic teacher and I was totally hooked on the aspect of psychology that studies how the mind actually works. Of course this is a philosophical question, but the fact that you could investigate this as a scientist was really fascinating.

How does your experience studying with Dr. Marsolek inform your research today? Well, as an undergraduate assistant in his lab I was assigned all the grunt work — I recruited subjects and collected data and that was pretty much it. It was a perfect introduction to research, because when you just take lecture classes you're getting "the greatest hits" — the most fascinating studies, the things that turn out great, the results that revolutionized the field. And then when you actually sit down to do the work, you realize that 80-90% of the experiments don't yield results that are interesting, that the day-to-day work of it is tedious and not at all glamorous.

You sort of need someone to walk in to your lab from an Oliver Sacks book, unable to recognize his hat or something. Exactly! The stuff we were doing was studying basic visual perception — how people recognize objects was the main question that my advisor researched. And what I realized is how narrow the focus is of any individual researcher, even though the field as a whole is doing all kinds of interesting things.

So what got you interested in learning science? After I graduated, realizing there was a time limit on my dream of being a professional dancer, I ended up dancing for the next six years. I didn't do anything related to science at all. Eventually I reconnected with Chad Marsolek, and through a quirk in timing and available funding, he recommended that I apply for a fellowship through the educational psychology department, an interdisciplinary training and research program in education sciences. To be honest, at first I didn't care that much about K-12 education; I had no background in it and, I hate to say it, no intrinsic interest. It was not the thing I thought I would end up doing. But I joined the program and met a lot of scientists who did educational research. I realized, I can do this research on memory and learning, but now I can think about what impact it might actually have on people outside of academia. In the lab I worked in we were asking really interesting questions like, "What is the structure and function of memory in the brain, how does it work, how does it connect this part of the brain to that part."

Your job as instructional designer depends on so many different disciplines: subject matter expert, lesson creator, art designer, part-time technologist, learning scientist - and for games - game theory, game mechanics, reward systems and such. What prepared you for all this? A big part of my job is understanding the big picture - and maybe this is where the philosophy comes into play - but I gravitate towards, "What's the whole, big idea of this, and how can I organize this in a way that is helpful for learning." My background in teaching helps with this, obviously, because you take a curriculum and you have to figure out how to make it interesting, what to present, what to leave out. For iNeuron, the source material was neuroscience textbooks, which are written at the college-level not the high school level, so understanding what we could leave out was crucial. We collaborate with subject matter experts who tend to be content purists, but you have to temper that with, "OK, we have two class periods with these students, what can we realistically help them learn?" If they walk away with a new understanding of major processes and ideas, if there's a detail or two that's not entirely correct, that's ok — they'll have that misconception corrected later.

This reflects how people actually learn. We don't step through information incrementally learning everything perfectly, we get the big picture, but about half of it is wrong, then we get more information that revises our understanding, and now only a quarter of it is wrong, and then we revise it again if we keep learning. Just setting someone up with a theoretical structure for a topic is really valuable, even if part of it is wrong because you don't have time to get all the details right the first time around.

You just completed classroom research on iNeuron, first in pilot studies last fall, then in a randomized controlled study this past winter and spring. What did you learn about the teachers who took part in the study? The teachers we recruited for the iNeuron study had all taken part in BrainU, a program conceived and led by Janet Dubinsky in the neuroscience department at the University of Minnesota since about 2000. It's a professional development workshop for middle and high school science teachers that teaches them how understanding neuroscience can inform the practice of teaching and learning. I helped coordinate and teach BrainU in the run-up to the study, and I was impressed by how motivated those teachers were to sacrifice two weeks of their summer to study neuroscience with everything else they have to do.

And after being in an academic environment where we think, "Here are the principles; go use them," I would hear the teachers come back and say, "What do you mean — I have to use this? This student didn't eat breakfast this morning, this student missed class the last two days, this student doesn't speak English very well," and there are just so many complex concerns that they have to negotiate every day. Asking teachers to suddenly apply this exciting new neuroscience finding in their lessons is sort of ridiculous. So I started to appreciate the complexity of trying to translate the research into practice.

Were their unexpected discoveries arising from the study? I was pleasantly surprised by how many students really cared about solving the challenges and getting the points. Just the inherent motivation of a game, a game by the way that covered a complex topic, and that for most students wasn't part of their core curriculum. A large percentage were raising hands — "Hey, I'm stuck, can you help me with this?" — even though it didn't count towards their grade.

What has stood out for you as you have reviewed other scientists' learning games research? It’s hard, there’s such a wide variety in the quality of published research on learning games that there's not a clear set of principles rising up from it. Each researcher's game is specific, and they are mostly trying to find out if their game works, not trying to extract general principles of games for learning. I just read a review and meta-analysis from 2015 by Douglas Clark and colleagues — he works with a really good group at Vanderbilt.

I was struck by their finding that visual realism and story depth didn't significantly predict efficacy. This is a little counterintuitive because the sense that I get from the field of learning game design is that we're all pushing toward games that look like the games kids play at home, and if we did that, they'd be better learning games. But they didn't find significant effects of, for instance, having a rich visual environment.

They also found an advantage overall for individual play versus group play. This is surprising because there's a whole body of research on peer learning, on why learning things in groups is advantageous, so it makes me wonder if we just haven't hit on the right way to do group games, or maybe we're limited by the technology or something else, because I would have expected the opposite. When we measured knowledge gains with the iNeuron study, we also didn't find a specific advantage to group play over individual play, although the students and teachers I worked with in the classroom seemed to really engage with it.

What games did you play as a kid? I played a lot of board games growing up with my family. Trivial Pursuit and Taboo, and my mom loved Scrabble. I saved up my allowance money and bought the original NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] Console and I played hours and hours of Super Mario 3 and Tetris and Doctor Mario. I didn't keep up with it — until the Wii came out, I wasn't really interested in Call of Duty, RPG shooter games — those aren't really made for me.

I have read and heard a number of times now, "If kids sniff out this is an education game, they won't want to play it." Maybe the point is they won't want to play it outside of school?... Right. And honestly, I think that is a really lofty goal. The idea that a kid is going to go running to an educational game instead of playing Minecraft or Halo or whatever. That's a tall order. Instead, would you rather play this educational game, or read this textbook chapter? The comparison should be other educational curriculum tools, not games out in the real world. I don't think we'll ever win that competition if our objective is teaching difficult-to-learn science concepts in the classroom.

You write music and sing in an Alt-Country Bluegrass duo. How does that inform your work? I couldn't be a scientist if I wasn’t also an artist. They support each other completely because they are totally different ways of thinking and doing things. If you're just one sided in your thinking, you don't have that flexibility. So all the things I do creatively — which I never really thought would matter in a "science" job — are required for designing games.

So, should I title this interview "The Left and Right Brain Hemispheres of Katrina Schleisman: How Logic and Creativity Come Together..."? Like most of the colloquialisms about the brain, this one just isn't true. It's like the movie Lucy: what if all of a sudden you could use all of your brain. Well, you do already.

I think what makes me grind my teeth and laugh at the same time is how much people think we understand about the brain, and so it gives screenwriters license to create these really outrageous plot scenarios almost like we can read peoples' minds. One of the exciting and frustrating parts of studying psychology and the brain is realizing how much we are in the infancy of it, and how far away we are from understanding even the most basic parts of human thinking.

iNeuron® Version 2 Released on the App Store

We are pleased to announce the release of a completely re-designed version of iNeuron.

After the success of iNeuron-EFT with over 50,000 downloads, we developed this new version from scratch to provide a more engaging experience on the iPad. It represents 5 years of research and development, input from multiple teacher focus groups, extensive pilot and efficacy studies involving over 1,000 students in 35 classrooms, and an extraordinary partnership effort with neuroscientists, instructional designers and teaching experts at the University of Minnesota. And all of this was made possible by a major, multi-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and our generous Kickstarter backers.

Here's what's new in iNeuron:

More Levels, More Games
Based on feedback from teachers and students, players are now taken on an exploration of neuroscience with more lessons and more circuit-building challenge games. The distinct new design and revamped layouts have received praise from teachers and students alike.

It's Personal This Time
Players choose a role - basketball player, violinist, chemist - and throughout the game learn the relevant neural pathways involved in accomplishing key tasks.

Get it Together, People!
The multi-player challenges emerged as the group favorite in our pioneer classrooms. We improved the user interface, expanded the number circuit-building games, and included "Individual Play" and "Group Play" modes at every level.

My Favorite Subject Was Recess
In the original game, the free play section was a favorite destination for many student players, really taking us by surprise. In this new version, we provide additional free play opportunities, with mini-challenges and more pieces and thresholds to tinker with.

Coming Soon: the Andamio Dashboard for Teachers
This version of iNeuron can be downloaded for free, and everybody can play the first two levels in their entirety (including the essential "Neurons & Nerves" and "Flex Biceps"), with full functionality, including group play. Subsequent levels are unlocked with an in-app purchase. For classroom play, teachers will be able to unlock an entire classroom of iNeuron with the Andamio Dashboard for less than $30. It will also give them the ability to customize content, monitor class and individual progress, and generate performance reports.

Download and play iNeuron and tell us what you think. Teacher and student feedback is what made iNeuron what it is today.

Andamio Welcomes Erin Lease for Graduate Research Fellowship

Erin Lease, a PhD student in Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, will be joining Andamio Games this summer as part of a Graduate Research Fellowship sponsored by the University.

Erin is interested in exploring ways to use technology to build cost-effective, scalable solutions for closing opportunity gaps in education and health. She has experience implementing and evaluating effective programs in schools and implementing innovative strategies to improve school readiness and achievement.

Erin has seen the power of how games can engage students in learning and is interested in building collaborations between educators and developers to build games that are both educational and engaging.  Throughout the course of her experience in intervention and research, Erin has seen firsthand the way that technology can transform a classroom: “It’s hard to deny that there is something special about the way that games motivate student learning. I believe that, as educators, we have to be better at integrating technology into effective programs and practices in order to engage students.”

In addition to learning about the creative process at Andamio Games, Erin will be exploring strategies in analyzing game analytics and outcomes, commercializing educational technology, and exploring aspects of engaging game design. Stay tuned for products of Erin’s research.

Teacher Tech Jam

Ed-tech Companies are frequently admonished to receive teacher input at every stage of their product design process. This recommendation is so obvious that it barely merits mentioning, but in practice it is anything but easy. Teachers like everyone else are extremely busy, only more so, and asking a teacher to interrupt her classroom time to try out new technology is usually a bridge too far.

This is why we conceived Teacher Tech Jam. We wanted to devise an event where entrepreneurs and innovators could get their products into the hands of teachers in an informal setting that facilitated meaningful feedback.

Last June we attended a gathering of teachers hosted by Peter Kirwin and Ellie Roscher of Nudge Education. Peter and Ellie assembled a group of teachers to experience the classroom collaboration tools he had created, Whudent and Wevaluate. We were struck by the relaxed and lively atmosphere, and how it generated incredibly candid and actionable feedback.

Steve Walvig, The Bakken's director of education, Tour Guide Extraordinaire

Steve Walvig, The Bakken's director of education, Tour Guide Extraordinaire

Then in July we attended GLS11, the games and learning conference held every summer in Madison. This remarkable assemblage of researchers, teachers, education companies and game developers further impressed upon us the crucial role teachers needed to play in shaping our games for the classroom. We also met Seann Dikkers, a nationally respected researcher in games and learning, who we discovered was returning to the Twin Cities to chair the Education Department at Bethel University.

Enter Educelerate North. From its earliest stages, Andamio Games has been involved with this MeetUp group, founded by Steve Wellvang and co-organized with Steve Mesmer. Educelerate North has built a reputation for delivering compelling and useful sessions, and we recognized the power of its mission to nurture the ed-tech ecosystem in the Twin Cities.

Once we added the possibility of educators earning technology CEUs (credit hours required for re-licensure), the idea for the Teacher Tech Jam event received strong very strong support, indeed.

Party like it's the mid-1700s

Party like it's the mid-1700s

Here's how the event came together:

  • Educelerate North invited us to organize under their banner; this gave us access to their membership and online registration, and they provided a catered meal from Be'wiched (thanks to their sponsors, Capstone and Capella).
  • The Bakken Museum donated the superb meeting space, and Director of Education Steve Walvig conducted a private tour, introducing many teachers for the first time to this incredible gem of a museum.
  • Seann Dikkers of Bethel University provided additional incentive to attending teachers by managing and issuing technology CEUs for their participation.
  • Jenny Severson of Quantum Learning kicked off the workshop with an active session that modeled best practices for social-emotional learning in the classroom.
  • Local teacher-preneurs Peter Kirwin (Nudge Education) and Matt Nupen (DocentEDU) introduced attendees to their remarkably useful web-based classroom technologies.
  • Adam Gordon (Andamio Games) led three sessions where attendees were handed iPads, played the latest version of their neuroscience game, iNeuron, and provided feedback on the group play mode.
  • And extraordinary local app developer Sean Berry (Algebra Touch) closed out the event with a compelling personal history of his journey to building educational apps, and a demo of his captivating math game, Algebra Touch.

For the organizers, the energy and enthusiasm were particularly gratifying, and the especially the strong cohort of teachers and students exceeded our hopes for the evening. The relationships that emerge out of events like this can become the engine of growth and innovation around ed-tech in the Twin Cities. We're already planning Teacher Tech Jam 2: we'll take the lessons learned from our inaugural installment, invite more teachers and a new batch of technology companies, and deliver an even more interactive and spirited workshop. Stay tuned!

Matt Nupen, Karin Hogen and Ben Pederson of DocentEDU

Matt Nupen, Karin Hogen and Ben Pederson of DocentEDU

Andamio Games Wins NSF Award

Andamio Games Wins National Science Foundation Award

Grant supports the development of the next generation of collaborative games that will help students learn cell biology and other difficult-to-teach STEM subjects

Minneapolis, Minnesota: Educational technology innovator Andamio Games has been awarded a $150,000 Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation to support the development of collaborative games for mobile devices that help students learn difficult-to-teach STEM subjects.

The funding will underwrite a research project that brings together accomplished application development engineers from Andamio Games, and local experts in biology instruction, learning science, and usability design. This team will design a series of tablet-based lessons and challenges to help students master difficult concepts in high-school and college biology curricula. Groups of students will use the game collaboratively, working in concert to model complex biological processes. The project will initially focus on cell respiration and photosynthesis.

Research will be conducted in partnership with leading science educators at the University of Minnesota, including Sehoya Cotner, Professor of Biology, and Barbara Billington, Professor of STEM Education at the College of Education and Human Development.

Andamio Games’ newly patented method of enabling collaboration among students using mobile devices is the innovation that makes the NSF-funded project possible. The technology builds on the most recent thinking in educational psychology, affording teachers the ability to provide appropriately individualized instruction without separating students into ability-based groups. “Teachers tell us that our approach to multi-player, cooperative challenges engages students and sets the stage for peer learning like no other app they have tried,” says Adam Gordon, Director of Educational Outreach.

Andamio Games’ first app, with over 50,000 downloads, is iNeuron, a collaborative game designed to help teachers improve neuroscience education in high-school biology and psychology classrooms. Version 2, which is currently undergoing classroom evaluation, will be available early next year.

About Andamio Games:

Andamio Games® builds standards-based mobile device games to make difficult foundational STEM concepts more engaging and attainable. Through a combination of scaffolded lessons, game-based assessments, and collaborative problem solving, Andamio aims to make classroom science instruction more active, fun, and effective. To learn more, visit the website at

11 Lessons About Game-based Learning in STEM Fields

(11 Lessons About Game-based Learning in STEM Fields by Christine Byrd was originally published on the MIND Research Institute Blog.)

In case you missed the recent STEMconnector townhall on “Leveraging Game-based Learning to Increase STEM Engagement,” here are 11 lessons we learned from the teachers, students, game-designers, philanthropists and experts who participated.


1. Games are already ubiquitous

Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector, pointed out that 4 out of 5 American households currently have a gaming device, according to a recent study (ESA, 2015). “We know that game-based learning is revolutionizing learning in school and out of school and ... keeping kids engaged, so it is exciting.”

2. Games prepare students for careers in the STEM fields

The kind of problem solving required in STEM careers bears a strong resemblance to certain skills fostered by gaming, pointed out Nigel Nisbet, a former teacher and MIND Research Institute’s Vice President of Content Creation. “I think one of the things that’s important to realize is that, for people facing challenges in STEM careers, those challenges don’t switch off, it’s not like a textbook you can close and then go home. When you’re faced with a challenge it’s something that you really need to be immersed in in order to solve and games provide that immersive opportunity for problem solving that you just can’t replicate anywhere else.”

3. Kids like the “hard fun” of gaming

Game designers use the term “hard fun” to describe experiences that are simultaneously enjoyable and difficult. “That’s really why we play games in general, whether it’s a video game or basketball or chess,” said Gregg Toppo, USA Today’s education reporter and author of The Game Believes in You. “We’re both having fun and doing something that’s really challenging.”

“If there’s any sort of theme to [The Game Believes in You], it’s that ... games have the potential to make school both enjoyable and also really challenging for this generation and also for generations to come.”

4. Games help introduce above grade-level concepts

Becky Renegar, who specializes in gifted education in Piqua Central Intermediate School in Piqua, Ohio, extolled the benefits of using online games to provide challenges for her above-grade level students. Additionally, groups of her students developed their own games in the National K-12 Game-a-thon, which provided rich opportunities for advancing their mathematical skills.

“Many times they’re motivated to learn new math as the need arises,” she said. “For example, I had two students who designed a skeeball machine for their game and in order to do that they had to determine the slope of the ramp. So we looked at the Pythagorean theorem – and these are third graders!”

5. Games reduce fear of failure

Incorporating game-based learning into her math program helped teacher Shannon Duncan at McPherson Magnet School eliminate the word “failure” from her class. “Real failure is simply in the never trying,” she said.

For more on the importance of failure, check out our blog “The Best Lesson: Learning from Failure.”

6. Games encourage a growth mindset

In games, everyone is capable of completing the level and moving forward in the game. Growth-mindset is the recognition that intelligence is not a fixed attribute, anyone can learn and grow. Middle school math teacher Shannon Duncan said game-based learning had been a “huge catalyst” to helping her students embrace a growth mindset. “Having that growth mindset with math is the only way we’re going to get our kids on the higher level.”

7. Games can be used across the curriculum

Shannon Duncan described using Minecraft to ask a student this question: How would you use blocks to build the White House in Minecraft?

“Our kids who traditionally struggle will find that they really excel with these types of questions. Even though it’s using math skills they’re using something they love and that’s the video game playing,” she explained. “We use this as a catalyst to kind of get them sucked into our world, if you will, which helps us because it empowers them to understand that there’s really math in everything you do.”

8. Don’t just play games – create your own!

Uma, mother of the 6-year-old coder, said all kids are interested in gaming, and most kids are natural problem solvers from a young age. When her son Kedar wanted to play his dad’s Wii nonstop, she decided to have him create his own games for it. “It occurred to me that as long as a child can read, they can do programming.”

Similarly, teacher Shannon Duncan said she has used everything from monopoly to dominos as educational games in her classroom. “Game based learning is what you make of it and what you manipulate the game to become.”

For examples of student-created math games including board games, card games, floor mats, and computer programs, view the National K-12 Game-a-thon’s Hall of Fame.

9. Gaming knows no age limits

From the delightfully precocious home-schooled six-year-old who loves games so much that he codes his own to the father of grown children who’s written the book on gaming – everyone in the Townhall had experienced true joy and delight with educational games.

10. Corporate philanthropy community supports game-based learning

PricewaterhouseCooper’s Eileen Buckley explained how their overarching strategy these past years and beyond includes partnering with MIND:  “[PwC is] moving more into the digital space. We appreciate how effective learning through games has proven to be, and so we’re investing heavily in innovation through technology and digital based tools.”

11. You can be both a mathematician and bibliophile

Twelve-year-old New Jersey student Jemma, who created the game Crop Computation in last year’s Game-a-thon, said she’s interested in a career in biology or computer science, yet her favorite subject is English. Would it be okay to go to college and double major in math and something like Russian literature, she wondered aloud?  But MIND’s Nigel Nisbet told her not to worry: CEO and co-founder of MIND Research Institute, Matthew Peterson, triple majored in Chinese literature and language, biology and engineering. After all, college -- like game-based learning -- is what you make of it.

Interested in hearing more? Watch the entire townhall:

Interested in learning about the ST Math game-based learning program for K-12 schools? Request more information:

Christine Byrd is a communications manager for MIND Research Institute, and parent of two game-loving kids.