Learning Blade training program helps middle schoolers learn about STEM careers

Learning Blade training program helps middle schoolers learn about STEM careers

December 4th, 2012 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Dr. Sheila Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media, speaks during a news conference at The Chattanoogan hotel launching "Learning Blade," a software program aimed at helping persuade 7th, 8th and 9th grade students to consider pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degree in college.

Dr. Sheila Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media, speaks...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

From rescuing an injured Dolphin to helping an orphanage in Haiti, middle school students enrolled in a new online training program quickly learn the value and fun of work in science, math and engineering.

Chattanooga entrepreneurs Dane and Sheila Boyington, both chemical engineers who previously developed a successful vocational testing and training program, launched a new web-based toolkit Monday they believe could address America's deficiency in science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM courses.

The new online program known as the Learning Blade provides an entertaining, game-based format to entice students to pursue "missions" to solve challenges using both reading and science skills. In the process, program developers hope to both teach and excite more young people into engineering and technical studies and vocations where the United States is losing its once-dominant lead in the world.

"This has always been a passion for us so we're excited about investing our time and money in this venture," said Sheila Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media in Chattanooga. "We chose to begin our work at the middle school age, when students are most likely to develop preferences about technology and their future career paths."

The Boyingtons already built one of the most successful online teaching and testing programs, "KeyTrain," which they sold to ACT Inc., two years ago. The couple are using those proceeds, and working with national leaders on STEM education from business and academia, to develop the Learning Blade.

The online course, which requires at least 30 hours of computer and instructional time, is being tested by students this winter in at least a half dozen states, including Tennessee. If successful, Thinking Media hopes to market the unique web-based "missions" to middle schoolers across the country by next fall.

The Chattanooga company already has inked a memorandum of understanding with the educational arm of Batelle Labs. Sheila Boyington said she hoped the online programs will be used in Hamilton County schools, but no agreement has yet been signed.

KeyTrain and its Work Key components previously developed by Thinking Media have been used to evaluate and test vocational skills for more than 4 million Americans. Sheila Boyington thinks this new venture could be even more successful and important.

The initiative is being aided by an advisory panel that gathered in Chattanooga on Monday and includes former Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp, who is serving as chairman; and top educators and business leaders from Ford Motor Co.'s fund an community services, Innovate+Educate, Oak Ridge Associated Universities and the University of Florida, among others.

"What I like about Learning Blade is that it takes science that can be a hard and dry subject and almost makes it fun," said Dr. Bill Madia, a vice president of Stanford University and former director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who is serving on the advisory board for the Learning Blade. "You want to capture kids in middle school and get them excited in science and go to college and get a technical education. That's how you fuel your economic engine."

Wamp said the Learning Blade "has the potental to really help the next generation in a very positive way."

"This is a direct classroom tool coming out of Chattanooga by two of our most brilliant citizens," he said.

Learning Blade has a staff of about 16 computer programmers in Chattanooga, Dane Boyington said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340