Interview
Alex Hayter – Spongelab Interactive

By Jorge Figueiredo - February 15th, 2012

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I’m not sure if you have ever heard of Spongelab Interactive. We have tweeted links to this award-winning portal that caters to scientists, teachers, animators, artists, and programmers who are passionate about science education. It is a fantastic resource for learning and employs a number of fantastic initiatives and tools (including games and interactive media) to help in science education. I recently had the chance to chat with Alex Hayter from Spongelab Interactive about a number of aspects of the site. Read on!

TT: Who created Spongelab?

AH: Spongelab Interactive was co-founded by Dr. Jeremy Friedberg in 2007, and we started off making educational science games. Dr. Friedberg is a molecular geneticist and former science professor who wanted to find better ways to engage his students. He created Spongelab as way to encourage learners to play with science and experience a more immersive kind of education. Since then, Spongelab has grown significantly. We now host all of our games on our website for free, alongside hundreds of more games, graphics and videos made in-house or created by the science education community.

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Simple design inspires curiosity.

In a Twitter-sentence, what is Spongelab about?

Spongelab stitches together interactive multimedia, online teaching and classroom metrics to provide a comprehensive platform for cost-free science education.

What kind of feedback have you received from teachers? Students? Program Directors?

We’ve received a ton of great feedback from the education community. We just won an award from Science Journal and the National Science Foundation for our game, Build-a-Body, and it’s the fifth international award we’ve won in the last four years. We’re constantly surveying our users to see what they want out of Spongelab. Overwhelmingly, we get positive feedback about how our site makes it easy for teachers to find and use educational content quickly – and the students really love how the site itself is a game that rewards them with credits and points. Last week we had almost an entire high school in Los Angeles sign up for free accounts – we hadn’t even talked to them!

How is Spongelab Funded?

Spongelab is funded through a variety of revenue streams that ensure that teachers and students don’t have to open their wallets. Publishers pay to have specific chapters of their textbooks cross-listed with our multimedia content. Retailers pay us to include their real-world learning materials in our content library. Certain Spongelab-created content such as quizzes and lesson plans can be sponsored by suitable organizations. Our site features a virtual credit system, where users are rewarded for using all aspects of our site with virtual credits which they can them redeem for premium content and teaching tools. Anyone can buy a site license that effectively unlocks everything previously redeemable with credits. We’ve tried hard to make a system that can be widely used by anyone, regardless of fiscal constraints. We also don’t sell user information, or have distracting advertising plastered all over the site, which is nice.

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Simply stated goals. Fantastic resource.

What plans do you have for Spongelab in the future?

Our big focus right now is on educational gaming. We’ve got a ton of new games coming out this spring. Build-a-Plant will allow players to create vegetative life from scratch. Ecotrophia will have you controlling nature’s variables to affect different species of plants and animals. Dragon Breeding is a breeding adventure game based on Mendelian Genetics, where your quest is to create the perfect dragon. The list goes on! We’re also really trying to grow Spongelab into an open science learning community. This means encouraging our user base to submit their favourite learning materials to our site (for example, via our Creative Commons submission tool). Our goal is to get Spongelab in more classrooms and homes throughout the world, and we’re happy to say that’s well underway.

How many users would you say log into SpongeLab each day?

In the last seven days we’ve had over 1000 new users sign up and login to Spongelab. Since launching in June 2011, we’ve experienced a growth of about 30-40% more users each month. We’re still in Beta and gearing up for our full release in the spring – so we’ll have a better idea of our daily users then.

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Come on! Who doesn’t want to build a body?

What do you think of initiatives like Seti@Home or FoldIt? Will you ever have links on your site introducing students to these really great programs?

Seti@Home and FoldIt are amazing programs for open and collaborative scientific research. We actually just featured FoldIt on our blog! So yes, for sure we’re trying to introduce students to these tools. Spongelab’s focus is on providing educational solutions for teaching science, so we haven’t tried to make games that let our users contribute to research projects – but you never know what’s on the horizon!

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