Vernier Software & Technology: Coding and STEM Education Engages Students in Problem-Solving Activities

People
By: 
Kenna McHugh, Learning Counsel Writer

David Vernier and his wife Christine Vernier founded Vernier Software & Technology 38 years ago before the concept of educational technology ever existed. David spent several years as a Physics instructor and started the company with a focus on selling their products to high school Physics departments. They branched out to universities and then serviced elementary and middle schools.

John Wheeler arrived at Vernier Software & Technology in 1993 moonlighting on some projects. An employee went on maternity leave and Wheeler joined the company full time. “I did the purchasing, receiving, and engineering. I did a little bit of everything in the beginning. We had less than 10 full-time employees. It was a fun and exciting time working closely with Dave on new products.”

Wheeler worked in product development for sensors and interfaces in Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. Five years later he became a partial owner and part of the executive management team. In 2014, he began developing science tools for the classroom with the intent of expanding their GoWireless product line.

A year later, he became CEO with 110 full-time employees. His focus is to continue the company’s mission and stay on top of the challenges and goals in science and STEM classrooms. “The importance of serving teachers and enabling students to learn and create through hands-on activities and science exploration is our core mission,” states Wheeler. “Vernier provides solutions and support to meet those goals and challenges as technology progresses.”

One of Vernier’s biggest challenges is making the learning tools to be affordable quality equipment that is easy to use and to provide excellent support. “Vernier brings modern technologies into the science classrooms at more economical prices with long-term, teacher-focused support,” explains Wheeler.

Vernier develops curriculum activities where students share equipment, or activities where the schools are not required to purchase more equipment. “We do a good job of making these products affordable. We hired former classroom teachers. They all know the pain of having a limited budget, and how to try to make that stretch.”

Vernier provides integration and operational support not only to the teachers but to IT departments and students as well. In this way, the students get hands-on experience working with support, to clear up misperceptions or uncertainties. “They ask us questions on operations or they're working on their science project or for a science fair or a bigger project within their science classroom. They ask us questions about the capabilities of measurements.”

The company support enables students to perform STEM experiments and activities. “Vernier works hard throughout the product development, market research, and customer feedback process to understand classroom and teacher needs. Our internal team, which is made up almost entirely of former educators, creates activities, develops products. and provides support. We strive to make good choices in performance and features that allow for quality data at more affordable prices,” adds Wheeler. 

Vernier fulfills information needs by providing training videos on their website as well as offering free hands-on training workshops around the country. Led by a former science educator, each workshop provides educators with the opportunity to explore age-appropriate, classroom-ready experiments. “These workshops provide a great professional development opportunity for teachers, whether they are new to data collection or just looking for a refresher,” explains Wheeler.

A favorite success story as CEO is the company’s research and development of wireless sensors. Vernier recognized the complexity of integrating their technology into the classroom. They had different software solutions on different platforms with different feature sets. They had lab instructions for some of the software but not on some key platforms. The company required a scheme of hardware solutions that included performance choices and unique features depending on the computing platform. With the goal of simplifying everything for those trying to implement hands-on data collection experiments in the classroom, the company leveraged the consumer market around home automation and Internet of Things (IoT) to create a new line of wireless sensors and software to go with them. “This free software is now the same on all computing platforms, we have hundreds of labs written specifically for this software, and teachers no longer need to purchase a system of equipment, just the wireless sensor that measures the parameters of interest,” explains Wheeler. “The simplification and reduction in implementation costs have been successful in making this science data collection technology available to more classrooms and students.”

An example of students being successful is using their wireless sensor Go Direct Sensors, to connect directly to Chromebooks, mobile devices, or computers. They include both USB and wireless connectivity. Students at Beebe Junior High School were selected as the winner of the Vernier Engineering Contest in 2015 and again in 2017/18.  The school engineering program includes over 175 students. The teacher described the program, “It’s all about hands-on learning and data collection. While my 7th and 8th-grade students used to think it was just fun or cool to see things explode or fly, their analysis of the data we collect using Vernier technology has helped them see the reason why we do the experiments.”

Wheeler is gratified by working and contributing to education. He understands the importance of improving science literacy and critical thinking in students. “We enjoy being part of meeting classroom needs, supporting educators, and engaging students.  We are lucky to meet with so many talented educators who share their enthusiasm for student success and engagement that it inspires us to work harder and keep driving towards new solutions.”

“The technology itself is important when it can provide improvements in engagement, enable deeper understanding, and promote participation in the education process. In today’s digital world, it's important that all students have access to technology to be successful 21st-century learners, starting as early as elementary school.”

Wheeler stresses the importance of coding as a valuable 21st-century skill that is heavily used and sought after in today’s workforce. Coding and STEM education, in general, continues to receive significant policy and funding support at the federal level. “Schools and districts will increasingly incorporate coding into their science curricula to help students, even those in early grades, develop this skill and engage in practical applications that build math and science skills. Real-world problem-solving activities—ones in which students use hands-on techniques to build, test, and refine a program—will further inspire students to follow studies and career paths in this growing industry.”

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