08 Jun The NeuronFarm works to increase reading comprehension
Madison has long been a home of innovation for entrepreneurs, as its liberal climate and productive economy make it an attractive place for them to place their roots. With over 120 technology companies founded in Madison over the past decade, the city’s potential for growth has led Forbes Magazine to place it first on the list of best areas for business and careers.
Every company in Madison has a major project in mind when they start, such as Opgen’s advanced scanning of the human genome or Stratatech’s artificial skin, but one company – the NeuronFarm – has a more ambitions goal: to grow brains. Not in the sense of genetics or cloning, but through adaptable and interactive Web-based software to strengthen literacy and comprehension among those who may have problems.
“The NeuronFarm specializes in the design and development of media-rich, Web-based applications to improve literacy,” said Ankur Malhotra, chief operating officer of NeuronFarm. “The company’s mission is to increase reading comprehension for all readers.”
While NeuronFarm was founded in December 2001, the seeds for the company were planted over 10 years ago by Mina C. Johnson-Glenberg, president and chief science officer of NeuronFarm. While working as a volunteer literacy tutor for children with dyslexia, she saw that due to the large numbers of students who needed aid, better tools and technology were required to give them all the help they needed.
In pursuit of this goal, she attended graduate school at the University of Colorado–Boulder and received a doctorate in cognitive psychology in 1998. While there, she also worked on the ROSS project, one of the earliest programs to use computer-based methods for educating dyslexic children. This experience led her to spend the next five years designing, assessing and implementing the results of Web-based reading programs, culminating in 2001 with the establishment of NeuronFarm.
“I realized that providing high quality training to large numbers of needy children would require the use of computers,” Johnson-Glenberg said, “along with sophisticated training and assessment programs.”
The NeuronFarm has been hard at work to create those programs, and has made a breakthrough with the creation of HEMA, or hi-dimensional expert match algorithm. HEMA is an assessment tool that is designed to provide feedback for computer-based training and learning applications. What makes HEMA especially inventive is the fact it allows teachers to move past the boundaries that exist with multiple-choice questions, and take a step further with constructed answers and short essays. HEMA then analyzes the answers with guides, such as relevance and grammar, and is able to provide near-instant quantitative feedback.
“The software is designed to be of premier quality, yet cost effective,” said David Elderbrock, chief technology officer of NeuronFarm. “Its modular, standards-based design guarantees a scalable, extensive platform for future development.”
The HEMA system is now one of NeuronFarm’s most useful resources, and forms the backbone of their primary project, 3D-Readers. 3D-Readers is designed to serve as a tool to improve the reading skills of struggling readers, charting each student’s growth individually and combining the data in classes and schools. The program uses what the staff calls a “scaffolded” method, starting out with a large system of aids that are gradually removed as the student improves, allowing them to evolve further. These aids include graphics to improve visualization, encouragement to create and answer questions, and prompting for “free-text” answers that receive instant feedback.
While 3D-Readers is still far away from release – the product is slated to be introduced early 2005 – early tests have been performed in the Madison Metropolitan school district, revealing a significant gain of 8 percent in reading comprehension for readers who possessed reading problems. The general consensus from teachers and administrators who administered the product was that the product tests a student’s capacity perfectly, and is ideally suited to the student market.
“The product allowed immediate feedback, which challenged students’ competency in both science and reading,” said Lori Hillyer, learning coordinator at Sennet Middle School, where the 3D-Readers program was tested for a month in its preliminary stages. “It was interactive, creative and student-centered instruction.”
While the company’s products are all currently in the pre-customer development stage, the company’s potential and strategy have earned it considerable praise and awards. To date, the company has won four small business innovation research grants from the U.S. Department of Education, adding up to over $1.5 million.
The NeuronFarm made another impact on Wisconsin recently, as their business plan placed them among the 27 finalists of the Governor’s Business Plan Competition. While it did not win the overall award, it was able to beat out 365 other competitors to secure its finalist position, proving the validity of its plan.
Malhotra praised the effect of the grants on NeuronFarm, crediting them as one of the company’s most important tools. “These early successes have been instrumental in providing necessary seed capital to take our ideas and innovations from concept to production.”
In the near future, NeuronFarm plans to continue their studies of 3D-Readers in order to perfect and enhance the product before its general release. They are currently working on completion of modules to cover a specific range of scientific concepts for students between sixth and eighth grade, and plan to release these modules for test studies in Milwaukee and Madison middle schools. The studies will both demonstrate the scalability of the system and align it with the strict government requirements for educational software. Additionally, NeuronFarm must go through the transition of producing the product to initially marketing it, so this data will provide a valuable boost to those efforts.
“As reading scores in the U.S. have been stagnant for the past decade, there will be great interest in a product that tackles one of the hardest aspects of reading: comprehension,” Malhotra said of the company’s future. “We interactively and visually train students … no one else in the field of education is doing this with a Web-based application.”
Les Chappell is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at email@example.com.