UT alumna builds app to tackle science education

Grace Dickens

A new science teaching app that engages and educates youth through hands-on experiences was just developed by Michelle Williams, a UT marketing alumna and CEO of Williams Learning Solutions.

The app is from Williams Learning Solutions and guides students through science-based experiences, which help children understand the application of complex science concepts. In Williams’ first product, titled “Eco Challenge,” kindergarten through second grade students explore the relationships between predator and prey in the grasslands. 

“I always had a passion about education,” Williams said. “My teaching is where I saw a need … I started seeing how technology was an opportunity to integrate science teaching. That’s when I decided I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. I wanted the opportunity to work with more teachers and more kids, and to go beyond my classroom to have an impact on more children.”

While the goal of the original product was to provide science content, Williams said she and her team realized they needed to build their own algorithm, or a system that adapts to the way you learn by recognizing patterns in app responses.

“It’s really important you have a fundamental understanding of the needs of the people you’re trying to build something for,” Williams said. “We create tools and features that encourage self-monitoring and reflection. That’s crucial for any learning.”

Moreover, Williams said their product is based on systems thinking — meaning students learn concepts in the context of the larger picture. 

“Even with this first product, we’re trying to help make thinking visible early on in the learning process,” Williams said. “We’re … focusing on real-world problems with opportunities to connect visual, underlying phenomena.”

Williams said perspective is crucial. Trusting the feedback of people on the ground who interact with students can lead to changes in the program to accommodate student needs, said Tyne Sanders, an East Lansing Public School District kindergarten teacher.

“Especially for our kindergarten-level … everything has to be read to them and be very clear on where to push buttons,” Sanders said. “The kids are definitely motivated and engaged when they are using (the product). After they use it, they definitely have a better sense of how things are intertwined, and how creatures rely on each other.”

Williams also has a few teachers on the design team for the product. This gives young students, such as those in Sanders’ class, the accommodations they need, she added. Allie Brenner, East Lansing Public School District first grade teacher, said her students are engaged with the app despite it being educational.

“Any time I’ve had any classes work with it, they were always … really excited when they were making discoveries,” Brenner said. “In terms of being authentic, I think it really covers science topics in depth and is engaging. It presents it in a way they understand and will remember well.”

The app will officially launch in November and will charge $1–$2 for the first product, Williams said. She said her team intends to move toward a subscription model in the future, which would provide continuous content to users for a set rate.

“We are building something teachers and parents have told us they want,” Williams said. “There are a lot of ideas in science that can be abstract and difficult to understand. These ideas are building blocks that are essential.”