Interview | James Caras: STEM and Sapling Learning

Sapling Learning evolved out of Science Technologies, an earlier educational technology company that James Caras founded out of the University of Texas at Austin. Sapling Learning is a leading provider of online learning, interactive homework, and assessment software for the sciences. They started serving the higher education science market, but have expanded to offer high school science learning solutions as well. Sapling’s software provides students with problem-solving practice and effective instruction to help them succeed on exams. Sapling’s software was created by a team of experienced science educators and authors. Here, James discusses the benefits of Sapling Learning, what quality instruction really means and the (possibly not so) “dire outlook” of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in the US and what’s being done right now to turn that around.

Victor: What does the name mean?

James: A sapling represents something that is young and full of potential, like all the students we serve. Also, the company has a strong foundation in science, as almost half the company are educators with Masters or PhD degrees in science or engineering degrees. Scientists often derive names from Latin, where “sap-” indicates perception, knowledge, and understanding. Our company is focused on developing in students the ability to perceive and ask questions about the world around them, then laying down a foundation of knowledge and problem-solving skills that they can apply to achieve an scientific understanding of almost any phenomenon.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

James: Our software focuses on enhancing problem-solving ability in students, something that is essential to success in science classes. Our software engages students with questions that include rich interactions that are specific and relevant to the discipline being studied (such as molecule drawing or graphing). When a student struggles, Sapling delivers instant instructional feedback customized to their misconceptions as well as tutor-like guidance on how to solve a problem, as well as detailed solutions.

For professors and teachers, all student work is saved for review and assigned a score that goes into a grade book. This removes all grading of assignments (and in some cases, exams), saving teachers and instructors tremendous amounts of time while allowing them to hold their students accountable to complete work in a timely manner throughout the term. Detailed student performance analytics help teachers modify their instruction based on the demonstrated strengths and weaknesses of their students, as well as allow them to gauge student effort.

Sapling’s instructional efficacy benefits are backed by published education studies at numerous universities, not mere marketing heresay. Purdue University compared students that used Sapling with those that did not, and found over one letter grade difference in terms of performance in the course, a result featured in US News and World Report. An excellent engineering school, the Colorado School of Mines, determined that sections of classes that used Sapling produced twice as many A grades and 50% more Bs, with a concomitant reduction in Cs, Ds, Fs, and withdrawals. The University of North Texas compared Sapling with all our major competitors from the large publishing companies, and found that Sapling ranked #1 in terms of overall educational efficacy. Note also that UNT showed that Sapling was the only system more effective than hand-graded written homework, showing that we are far more than simply a grading convenience for instructors, with proven instructional benefit beyond what a teacher can provide.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

James: Sapling is unique in many ways, but the one most loved by our customers is our educator support. We back our content and software by Ph.D.- and Master’s-level “Technology TAs” that customize courses and content according to the unique curriculum needs of each instructor. When a chemistry professor calls Sapling, they speak directly to a chemist who is an expert at using technology in the classroom. Other unique attributes of Sapling are our independence from a particular textbook, the ease-of-use and power of our authoring environment for editing or creating content. Sapling’s support, flexibility, and creative power all contribute to educator freedom.

Sapling competes primarily with solutions offered by the major educational publishers, whose products have been designed to serve a particular textbook. Sapling, by contrast, services an educator’s curriculum and the individual learning needs of a student.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

James: Sapling Learning’s educational philosophy and style developed over the last 10 years. Our software and instructional content has been developed and continually improved upon since 2008.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Sapling can be adopted directly from us. Contact sales@saplinglearning.com.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

James: College students can subscribe to Sapling Learning for $30/semester. High schools can purchase annual subscriptions for $12.50. Within the college market, interactive eBooks can be added as an option for $20.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

James: Sapling Learning’s web sites have many examples. For high school visit hs.saplinglearning.com. For higher education student examples, as well as some videos of the instructor experience, visit www.saplinglearning.com.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

James: Sapling is currently adopted by over 300 faculty at nearly 200 universities for science courses, including both lecture and labs. We expect hundreds of high schools to be using Sapling in the Fall of 2011. Sapling Learning is NOT for corporate training.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

James: Both high school and college educators are being asked to serve more students with fewer resources. Educators need tools to allow them to extend their instructional capacity without sacrificing the quality of instruction. Increasingly, educators are telling me that students entering their classes lack problem-solving ability, and only want to memorize how to get an answer rather than learn to understand how and why a solution is obtained.

I am concerned that over the next five years the high school market is going to make a lot of the same mistakes that the higher education market made in the 2000s in terms of instructional technology adoption. Science teachers need effective resources that improve student’s ability to succeed on exams, and need to avoid slick media or plug-and-chug approaches to problem-solving that result in spending a lot of money for minimal, short-lived instructional gains.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Sapling Learning?

James: I have been teaching all my life. I tutored students in high school. While at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I worked my way through college tutoring science and math to athletes, as well as developing interactive learning games (in HyperCard) for the chemistry department computer lab. I also conducted molecular modeling research for the Chemistry department in the late 80’s, submitting “jobs” to a Cray supercomputer located in Las Vegas. I was therefore a member of the cadre of scientists using the Internet before the World Wide Web, predating the web browser. This was also the time I began to see how computers could be used in education to both engage students and present complex science concepts in a much more effective, visual manner. In graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, I was fortunate to join the lab of Dr. G. Barrie Kitto, who was a technophile and visual artist himself, who fostered my interest in instructional technologies in science, and we were awarded numerous grants for developing molecular visualization activities and animations for chemistry.

Victor: How does Sapling Learning address some of your concerns about education?

James: For educators, Sapling removes the tedious, time consuming aspects of teaching such as grading, instructing students on prerequisite concepts, and working problems on the board. This frees the instructor to spend their time in class teaching to prepared students, facilitating group-work, and covering the conceptual nature of the subject to a deeper level. The benefits of Sapling are agnostic of the number of students, and scale readily.

Sapling has a laser focus on student performance gains on science exams and preparing students for lecture and lab comprehension. Students know when software is helping them learn and then value their time spent in it. Students who use our software constantly ask for more problem-solving activities to practice. This is in stark contrast to pure assessment solutions or solutions that present media that is mostly fluff with little long-term retention. Students learn most effectively by *doing*, not merely watching passively.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

James: Despite the proliferation of articles on the dire outlook for the US in terms of STEM education and the threat to global competitiveness, companies like Sapling are innovating and will be delivering solutions that turn this around. My experience has shown me that the ingenuity of US students is still unmatched. If we can shore up the foundation of knowledge and improve problem-solving, the future scientists and engineers of tomorrow will be well prepared by our education system.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Sapling Learning? What makes you say that?

James: Again, Sapling is effective instruction. I am only saying what people have proven in studies and published in leading education journals.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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