In a 30-year stint at the helm of the National Geographic Society, Tim Kelly oversaw some of the former nonprofit organization’s boldest attempts to expand beyond its roots as a scientific and education institution, creating the organization’s Emmy-winning television and film divisions. Three years after he left, his next project veers into different territory; trying to bring video games into the classroom.
His vehicle, a District education technology company called Planet3, wants to develop new ways of using games to teach science to K-12 students. The company announced Wednesday that it has secured a $10 million investment from Switch, a Las Vegas company best known for operating servers and data centers on the West Coast.
As a result of the investment, Switch gets a substantial minority stake in the company and Switch chief executive Rob Roy will serve as chairman.
“We did this because we bought into Tim’s vision and he offered to make Nevada a test site,” said Thomas Morton, chief financial officer at Switch.
Planet3’s initial release is scheduled for fall 2016, focusing on a curriculum in Earth, life and physical sciences for middle-school students.
“With game design we can put students in the eye of a hurricane, in the far corners of the universe, or inside a leaf to see how photosynthesis happens,” Kelly said.
Kelly, who serves as chief executive, co-founded the company with Vijay Lakshman, a video game designer responsible for classics such as Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. A third co-founder, chief science officer Albert Yu-Min Lin is a researcher at the University of California at San Diego who specializes in technology-enabled exploration. The company also has hired Kelly McGrath, the former head of K-12 science curriculum development at the education firm Pearson.
CEO Kelly says the traditional way of teaching science — through textbooks, lectures and some hands-on lab work — is driving children away from the discipline. A generation that grew up plugged in to PlayStations and iPhones might respond better to different methods.
“They’re all digital natives and you have to meet them on their playing field,” Kelly said.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the business could rest on whether teachers and school boards buy into the concept. Public schools are the biggest potential market for the company, but strict curriculum requirements and even tighter budgets can present roadblocks to anything that might be perceived as unorthodox.
“We have a lot of ideological resistance to the idea that a game can be useful,” Lakshman said.