Prisms VR has found a way to improve math literacy using virtual reality headsets for visualization. And now the company has raised $12.5 million in funding.
Andreessen Horowitz led the round. Prisms launched in 2021 to bring problem-driven, tactile and visual learning to the math classroom, and it is the first educational technology platform to leverage VR to accelerate math proficiency in U.S. schools.
The company released its VR app on the Meta Quest platform. This has been the dream of Anurupa Ganguly, CEO and founder of the company. She wants to teach math in a way that is more accessible. As a math and physics teacher in Boston, Anurupa said in an interview with GamesBeat that the U.S. education system doesn’t enable students to utilize the multiple modalities through which human beings make sense, reason and deepen their understanding of the world around them.
The VR learning is being used in 110 school districts across the country. In 26, states, more than 100,000 students are using it. The company has 15 people, and it is just getting into heavy sales mode.
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“It’s just rapidly growing, without really doing much at all, because teachers and kids are so fed up with how math instruction has been,” she said. “A lot of our school districts are deploying VR headsets at scale. We are the one taking VR headsets into schools. None of our districts have them. And we are leading deployments. And so school districts are really seeing this as an opportunity to begin to utilize the next generation of tech, or spatial computing.”
The company is making money and it has been cashflow positive since it started selling into schools via a software subscription.
“Technology has failed our students, especially where math is concerned. With new developments in immersive tech, we have the opportunity to make learning experiential and connected to students’ lives” said Ganguly. “Prisms is the first learning solution that empowers students to experience real-life problems with their bodies versus reading about them divorced from personal experience. They are then able to build up to shorthand abstractions from intuitive visual and tactile experiences that lead to enduring retention and deeper understanding.”
Prisms VR did its own report on how the education system has failed our kids and what technology can do to help. Edtech venture funding finally soared in the pandemic, when it was clear that traditional ways of schooling wouldn’t work when kids couldn’t even go to physical schools. But this funding won’t work if it simply means digitizing the methods that haven’t worked over the years, Ganguly said.
In 2021, 39% of students were below grade level in math, compared to 29% historically, according to i-Ready Research on Unfinished Learning. And the 2019 Trends in International and Mathematics Science Study found that the U.S. is falling behind in STEM proficiency compared to other leading countries.
VR headsets grew at about 66% in 2022 to 46 million units, but they’re still pretty scarce in the market compared to other computing platforms. And so they could use some help from non-traditional buyers, including parents who might want to see their kids get ahead in math.
“We are we’re the first company taking VR into schools and it’s a moment in history,” Ganguly said. “And Andreessen Horowitz doesn’t throw their weight behind something that they don’t believe is going to fundamentally disrupt an industry, especially edtech where they do not traditionally make investments.”
She said learning math in VR is the best way for students to understand the “why” behind math, a question left unanswered for many. From rural to large cities, students are being given the opportunity to learn abstract concepts they typically memorize, through tactile real-world experiences.
“This is how people learn exponential functions today. They memorize patterns and if-then statements and run the procedure over and over and over again. And in Prisms, this is how you learn,” she said. “You learn through physically experiencing and visualizing the pattern, touching and moving to internalize the growth structure, and then discerning the growth factor to create the equation. So this is something that our school districts immediately get.”
“Educational technology that is efficacious at scale is hard to find. We believe that the team behind Prisms has pioneered a novel approach – one that is able to leverage VR technology to teach students the way they learn best,” said Jeff Jordan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a statement. “We’re excited to be a partner as Prisms not only continues to make a massive impact on students across the country, but also paves the way for the future of education.”
Ganguly founded Prisms to address the huge dearth of relevant math learning solutions, which has led to stubbornly low proficiency rates across the U.S. for decades.
Prisms intends to use the funds from this latest round to accelerate growth and adoption of its product and team. The funds will also go to expanding programs to more schools across the U.S. and product development in higher education and other subjects.
“Though education is VR’s most powerful use case, we haven’t seen disruptive VR learning tools transforming formal classroom settings, until now. Math education is going to be the killer app for VR.” said Ganguly.
Prisms’ VR math content module is available to consumers via the Meta Quest store for $24 via an annual subscription model.
Ganguly studied electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her freshman year, only 24% of the department was young women, and more than 50% of the group dropped out. Roughly 10% of the graduating class was women. As she pursued graduate studies, she became obsessed with the “egregious drop-out rates” of students in math. She became a high school math and physics teacher and taught in the Boston public schools.
She became the director of math in Boston, with 55,000 kids and 125 schools under her preview. She moved to New York for a similar role and was in charge of math for 800 schools and 1.2 million kids. She also went on to lead math and engineering at Success Academy, a successful charter program in the U.S. Even at Prisms VR, she spends a lot of her time in classrooms.
“What I found working across a lot of different schooling and school models, like small or medium or large, is that we don’t have the tools to close the learning gaps at scale,” she said. The numbers in the United States have been stagnant despite billions of dollars in investment. And as I began to look more into why this is, I discovered a few key insights. The top indicator of success in post-secondary STEM is your ability to rotate 3D objects in your mind and maintain perspective of that object.”
She said, “That’s what you roughly call spatial reasoning. The Soviets had first discovered this in the 1970s. The Soviets invested heavily in it. The second predictor of success in post secondary math is your ability to abstract from physicality. But the problem with modern the way that we teach math is that kids are typically staring at a word problem drawing diagrams, creating tables, charts, equations. We never teach them how to go from the 3D world, and ascribe language notation to create models of things that happen to them in their life, which is essentially the basis of all of the applied mathematics.”
Ganguly was looking at the research and thought of how Albert Einstein said his thinking was “muscular.”
In recent in recent history, we know that our brain is wired for experiential learning,” Ganguly said. “Learning by our senses, we know spatial reasoning is a top indicator. Everything kept pointing to the fact that the modalities that we currently utilize do not allow us to scale how we know people learn best.”
Meanwhile, Ganguly was also a VR enthusiasts. When Meta launched the Meta Quest One in 2018, she decided this was VR’s chance to rapidly scale.
Ganguly started Prisms VR in 2020 and she raised non-dilutive capital from grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She raised a seed round of $1.2 million in June 2021.
Her team built a spatial learning platform where kids can learn core math and science by embodying real world problems in VR, and then “abstracting up from there to create mathematical models that are much more sticky and lead to much higher retention and efficacy,” she said.
She started with Algebra 1, which is the Achilles Heel of the secondary STEM program. About 70% of U.S. eighth graders are not proficient in math right now. And schools didn’t fare so well in the pandemic. By giving kids VR headsets, their ability to visualize math problems was much better, and the visualizations was much easier to remember.
One of the projects Prisms VR worked on via an NSF grant was studying the spread of the pandemic an dhow easy it was for the virus to spread, which was like a math problem. As kids studied the problem of how soon hospitals would hit capacity, they didn’t even realize they were doing math, Ganguly said.
“Kids connect that physical understanding to 3D simulations outside their body so they can analyze it, then connect that to tactile data visualizations that they can annotate and see that structure from which they create tables and charts and an equation and finally solve the problem,” she said.
And that pilot led to a striking conclusion. Teachers who were saying they took three to four weeks for kids to learn a particular math lesson could now do it in one week. After that, Ganguly decided to built out all of the math classes for middle school. The net retention for kids grew rapidly, and most of the schools decided to renew their subscriptions to Prisms VR.
Visualizing a problem from a first-person point of view gives the student a much higher level of agency in solving it. It becomes active learning, rather than passive. It’s hard to fall asleep in class, particularly when you’re moving around. And that helps students who might be shy about math because they haven’t been successful at it in the past.
It turns out VR is excellent for full immersion into another world, while augmented reality is great for collaborative environments where you can manipulate in a shared space.
Still work to do
There is still a lot of work to be done. Schools need a lot of training to help their teachers come up to speed with the technology. Prisms VR is doing three studies right now. One has found an average increase of 10% in learning outcomes.
Aside from the technology, making math more real to students is a help, Ganguly said. It can address when and why Miami will have flood risks for businesses on its shoreline. It can tech students why real estate investors won’t build unless they can hit a 3.75 return on investment. Or it can help people calculate how many Girl Scout Cookies boxes can fit in the back of a van.
Ganguly believes these real-world problems are helping students remember and enjoy what they’re learning. One school superintendent in Ohio told Ganguly that he had never had Algebra I students saying they enjoyed the class, ever, until Prisms VR came along.
“One of the things we will make more sophisticated over time as the as, as the hardware evolves, is the seamless integration between the different platforms to have a cross platform learning experience without toggling between between devices and settings,” she said.
She is more excited about the future of VR, as an enthusiast.
“We know that the iPhone of headsets has hasn’t dropped yet,” she said. “We know that everyone’s waiting for like Apple’s announcement and all these new folks will be entering the market this year. And then the Quest 3 and more.”
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