National Post (Latest Edition)

Brain Chase proves winning combinatio­n

Academical­ly powered treasure hunt takes off

- By Sarah Max

When Christine and John Engler heard about a new online summer learning program called Brain Chase last spring, they decided to try it. “I always look for something academic for them to do in the summer,” said Christine Engler of her sons, Jack, 10, and Grayson, eight. “It’s usually a workbook or worksheets from the school, and a there’s always a lot of nagging.”

But through Brain Chase, about to enter its second year, the Englers of Austin, Texas, found themselves swept up in an exciting learning experience that included a six-week global treasure hunt for a buried “artifact” in Spain, a free trip abroad and, ultimately, a $10,000 scholarshi­p in cash.

Each week, after the boys completed age-appropriat­e online challenges in math, reading and writing, they were rewarded with animated videos giving clues to the location of an object called the Globe of the Magellan.

Shortly after the 12th and final episode, the Englers guessed the location of the treasure within a two-mile radius. A week later, they went on an all-expense paid trip to Llívia, Spain, where clues led them to a heavy wooden box buried under a cluster of rose bushes. Inside was a blue globe with the continents in gold plate. “A drawer popped out if you pressed the continents in the right order,” said Engler. “Inside was a key to a safe-deposit box.” The box, in a local bank, contained the $10,000.

The Englers joined roughly 500 other children in the Brain Chase première last summer, and this year they may face more competitio­n.

With a successful pilot behind it and some added marketing muscle, Salt Lake City, Utah-based Brain Chase Production­s is now preparing for 10,000 participan­ts, including 100 in Louisville, Ky., who will have free access to the program. (Typically, the cost is US$199 for the first child and US$100 for a sibling.)

When Heather and Allan Staker came up with the idea for an academic-powered adventure, they were not planning to start a business. Although she is a specialist in education and he in entertainm­ent, their intent was to keep their own children engaged in learning over the summer.

Heather Staker, an adjunct research fellow at the Clayton Christense­n Institute for Disruptive Innovation and co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, said she was initially thinking of creating a curriculum on a spreadshee­t and inviting children in the neighbourh­ood to participat­e.

Although there seems to be no shortage of educationa­l online programs and mobile apps, she said, what was missing was a cohesive experience in which children could learn about multiple subjects, with one login, and work toward a goal. Her husband saw the chance to wrap it into a storyline that would entice children to continue their studies in the summer. “I said, ‘Let’s make this an adventure that is irresistib­le,’ ” said Allan Staker, whose background includes inventing a video game and producing Super Bowl commercial­s.

The couple pooled their talents and contacts, raised US$500,000 from angel investors, and in 2014, introduced Brain Chase, which is aimed at second through eighth graders.

Children log into a single dashboard on which they track their progress and complete challenges via third-party providers, including Kahn Academy, myON digital library, Rosetta Stone and Google’s Art Project. (Any fees are included in the Brain Chase price). The time or effort required of each subject is based on age, but it works out to about an hour a day over five weeks.

Each week, provided they do their work, students get access to two new animated videos featuring a character named Mae Merriweath­er, who evokes a young, female Indiana Jones, and a cast of other characters. Each video offers a dozen or more clues to the location of the treasure. Participan­ts can make one guess within a 24-hour period, and collaborat­ion is encouraged.

Although the summer program is what Allan Staker calls their “blockbuste­r” challenge, Brain Chase plans to introduce smaller-scale experience­s for schools to use during the year. It raised another $1.6 million from angel investors last fall to expand programmin­g and marketing, including a television ad campaign.

It has just three full-time employees but works with a network of about 200 people, including animators, Web developers and teachers who review participan­ts’ weekly writing submission­s.

The couple pooled their talent and contacts and raised $500,000 from angel investors

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