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Combining Fun, Movement, and Learning to Code with Bryanne Leeming the Founder of Unruly Studios

Mike is joined by Bryanne Leeming, CEO of Unruly Studios, and creator of Unruly Splats. Bryanne begins by explaining the origins of Unruly Splats. Her early exposure to programming was key, as was the entrepreneurialism of her parents and her childhood involvement in sports. After graduating from college, she worked in product development. Seeing the interesting but often passive experiences offered by many Edtech products, Bryanne founded Unruly Studios.

Bryanne describes Splats as “programmable floor buttons”. They’re stomped on by kids to cause interactions, and kids can program them to create new games. Originally prototyped while she was still in business school, Spats are now in hundreds of schools across the U.S. and Canada. Kids have stomped them more than 1 million times

Mike asks about the impact of COVID on Splats, and Bryanne explains that even before the pandemic she and her team have been interviewing hundreds of teachers about their needs. As a result, they offer special challenges between schools and other moments of engagement.

Mike then asks about the social needs, especially in our time of social unrest. Bryanne discusses how they have baked in social from the start. They then discuss Unruly’s focus on building communities of practice, and how the Splats work with instructors and across curriculum.

Mike and Bryanne then further discuss Unruly’s efforts in light of the pandemic: How the Splats can be easily cleaned. They discuss how teachers are altering their environments to allow for safe, social play, and the support that Unruly provides the teachers .

COVID opened up a new market for Splats to be used for music education. And it’s not slowing their planned March Madness competition.

Finally, Mike and Bryanne discuss Unruly’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

If you like what you’re hearing, follow us at TrendinginEducation.com and wherever you get your podcasts.

Mike Palmer:  Welcome to Trending in Education.  Mike Palmer here, excited to be joined by Bryanne Leeming the founder and CEO of Unruly Studios, the creators of Unruly Splats which is what we’re going to be spending a lot of time talking about.

Bryanne, welcome to Trending in Education. 

Bryanne Leeming: Thank you for having me, Mike. I’m excited to be here.

Mike Palmer:  It’s fantastic to have you. And you’ve worked on a really interesting product that we’re going to talk about. It’s got fun language. I’m going to say it again: It’s Unruly Splats. 

But before we get into that, I’d love to hear how you got to where you are today in your career. As someone who’s in a cutting-edge role around learning and the future of education. How did you get to where you are today?

Bryanne Leeming: So, I studied cognitive science in undergrad at McGill university. And after that, I went to work in the tech industry in New York.   I started in product development and marketing at a luxury watch and jewelry brand, Harry Winston, and then worked in a tech startup. And ultimately went to Babson for my MBA.

But I was inspired to start Splats because of an early experience I had learning to code as a kid.  It trailed me through my career in technology and ended up being the idea that I had, that I just kept getting really good traction on–I couldn’t stop.  

Mike Palmer:  And I think we should connect it to the whole story too. We like to talk about the origin story. So, for instance, in a comic book, one of the earlier panels would probably have you taking some coding classes.

 Bryanne Leeming:  I grew up in New Hampshire. And I was at public school when I was exposed to the coding language, called “My Girls” at the time. And at the same time, my parents are restaurateurs. They owned a series of restaurants in New Hampshire. And so all along the way, I was seeing them run a business and I was also always an athlete.

And I think that’s definitely come into play for what we’re doing today. 

Mike Palmer:  And let’s get into that then next. Because Unruly Splats, in addition to sounding fun, it’s delivered in a way that is more physical than the way people typically would think of STEM education or coding class. Can you talk about what led to you coming up with the idea of Splats?

Bryanne Leeming:  What led to me coming up with the idea was I was watching the industry of education technology and STEM education and seeing all these really interactive things coming out. 

But a lot of them were passive experiences for kids. A lot of them were kids sitting alone for hours at a time, learning alone which I realized, having worked with kids at various sports camps, summer camps, things like that, I knew they don’t learn that way and they don’t engage that way.  They need group activities that are fun engaging.

And so, I was thinking, “How can we get that element of sports into the STEM industry?” And it’s much more inclusive that way too. It becomes something that’s fun, approachable, collaborative versus exclusive. That was the initial idea. And I prototyped a bunch of different things that looked nothing like what the Splats are today, but that helped us get the concept down and really take feedback from kids and educators and come to what we have today of the Splats.  

Mike Palmer:  Can you describe what the Splats are?

Bryanne Leeming:  Splats are a STEM learning tool that combines coding with active recess-style play for kids K- through 8th-grade. And they are programmable floor buttons. They light up, they make sound, and they sense when they’re stomped on by kids. So, they’re super durable. Even adults can stomp on them. 

And then through Bluetooth, they are able to be programmed by a kid-friendly coding language from an iPad or a Chromebook, and they create their own rules. They can change the timers, the stopwatch, which colors light when, how the victory dance plays off of the Splats.

So, for relay races, for things like whack-a-mole, that style of tag, those styles of games. And it really all came from the concept of wanting to build an electronic playground that kids could create with. And so that’s where that initial idea came from, and it is all about the kids creating the rules. They change the code to games that we have, and they’re super creative.  What if they come up with way better games than we do on our team events? 

Mike Palmer: You had me at programmable floor buttons. that’s a very wonderful explanation of it.

And the fun part is that then the kids get to program together, the games that they’re going to play. As a kid who grew up playing with kids in the neighborhood, we would just make games up a lot. And that was part of the joy of being in that age range that you’re talking about.

So, what’s cool is that now you can add to that the floor buttons, they light up and they do interesting, interactive things. I have a two-year old son and if there was something on the ground that he could step on, that would light up like that. We need some unreleased splats, I don’t know, maybe outside of your target audience, but it does just seem like a very fundamental human thing to step on things to interact with them. 

You’ve been doing this for a little while, and then it’s been a little more fully launched of late. Can you talk through that timeline? 

Bryanne Leeming: Yeah. We were taking it out to the early audience with original prototypes while I was in business school at Babson. After a successful crowdfunding Kickstarter, we brought it to market and officially worked with schools starting 2019.

We’re now in hundreds of schools across the U.S. and Canada. And we’ve had over a million stomps on the product so far from all these kids and all these places, which has been so fun to watch. 

Mike Palmer:  I’m already a fan of that key performance indicator.  But then if you were to extend this forward and actually maybe even extending forward from the fall of 2019, then a little something known as this pandemic and a very tumultuous 2020 happened. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like?  

I imagine that was a challenging time. We all had to pivot rapidly and a lot of your initial concept of the product was more to be delivered in a live classroom setting.  

Bryanne Leeming: The Unruly team had already been, even before the pandemic, we’ve always been big on talking to teachers all the time, talking to our market, learning what they’re going through, what else they need. So that was already ingrained in our culture,

I bring that up because immediately around April, May, we did 200 interviews with educators all across the country, learning what they were going through, what they needed. We ended up accelerating some pieces of our product to launch virtual splats so that they could continue to use our amazing lesson plans, but from home through Zoom to get kids, regardless of if they had the Splats at home. Because they were in the school buildings, they could still learn coding, get off the screen, be active. 

So, a lot of just listening to customers, adapting to what they needed. You use it as a point to really build our community of educators, because we found they were really looking for angles to be able to connect with each other. 

And we’ve been able to make that happen through a lot of things, including these new challenges we’ve started doing like the Fall Fitness Challenge, where we’ve got all of our schools across the country, competing.  So, a school in the Bronx, coach G one of the PE teachers, they won with the most stomps in November.  That kind of thing is really bringing them together. A lot of schools that we were working with just wanted these little moments of fun engagement, motivation for kids.

And so, we’ve been able to do that through a lot of the different things we’re doing and bring that element of silliness. 

Mike Palmer:  I’m a big believer in bringing the fun to the learn.  I have failed to get the word “flearning” to take off in support of that concept. But it does feel like if your educational experience can be intrinsically rewarding, it’s not transactional, you’re not doing it to get a grade, you’re not doing it to get into college. You’re doing it because you just love to do it. Ultimately, that’s what we want to inspire and all of us. So that we can continue to learn all our lives. 

And then also the social part is a trend that’s been huge this year building from the pandemic and then the Black Lives Matter movement and just all the tumult that we’ve had to navigate in the past year. It’s been an opportunity, I think, for people to reflect more on who they are, how they’re coming at things, and then try to empathize better with others. I imagine the social aspect of the game is very foundational to what you’re about. 

Bryanne Leeming: It was definitely always designed to be social. And social, emotional learning that’s really a large trend in education right now. We, through COVID, realize that Splats are a perfect fit for that, for learning lessons about communication when you’re building it with a team, you’re building your relay race with a team, and you’re testing it out and you’re failing and learning through failing which I love. But there’s a lot of learning there too, around the social element. And so that’s something we’ve thought about since the beginning. 

Mike Palmer:   I’ve talked a lot about communities of practice, but if you can get a community together, who’s engaged in solving a similar set of problems, maybe aligning around some principals, it does seem like you could find some grassroots uptake around the approach that you’re taking. Can you talk about how teachers have responded and maybe connected to each other and the community of interest around what you’re doing with your product? 

Bryanne Leeming:  It’s been a major part of building the community, and just what it looks like when Splats get to a school. We’ve designed our model based on ongoing training and support because often we’re the first computer science program that’s being brought into a school, or there they’ve done some things, but this is really, all-encompassing. Because our goal is to get computer science into all aspects of the day, not just its own corner. We want it to be in PE and music, and in the lessons about social, emotional learning and go throughout the day and be this learning tool that gets applied to what they’re already doing. 

We have these communities at a school where the teachers are working together, cross-curricular, maybe teachers that don’t normally work together, like the tech teacher, the STEM teacher, and the PE teacher.  That’s been so fun because the principals we work with love their staff collaboration. And it is a morale booster too, in that way of getting this whole kind of groundswell at a school.

And then when we bring the multi-school competitions, then it becomes really fun because now you’re competing against other schools.  We just did one where after our hour of code in December, the classes who completed the challenge, their teacher received a pie kit in the mail and they actually had to pie themselves in the face for the kids.

Cause it’s like the kind of thing that virtually you’re not having as much anymore. We wanted to bring silly things from school back 

Mike Palmer:  Yeah.  It’s good, that’s all fascinating stuff. If folks want to figure out how to get access to this or learn more about this, where should they go?

Bryanne Leeming:  Head to unrulysplats.com, and we’re also on Twitter @unruly_studios. 

Mike Palmer: Awesome. So that’s a lot but that really gets us to where we are today, where we’re recording this in late January.  The second wave of coronavirus seems to still be quite in effect vaccines, starting to come out, the spring semesters are coming back. It’s a very challenging time. 

It sounds like you’ve been able to rally to meet many of those challenges, which is awesome. But as someone who’s leading a relatively new venture into educational technology, how are you thinking about the future? What are some of your plans in terms of the coming year and heading into the 2020s? 

Bryanne Leeming: Yeah, it really feels 2020 was preparing us for this because we did so much what we built programs for any scenario. So virtual there was a hybrid where you, code at home, play at school. And then there was all the full in-person. But with social distancing—and Splats are actually super easy to clean. So, we had that as well as the sanitization piece. 

And now heading into this year, the momentum is building day-by-day. And I can’t wait because we’re doing our biggest rollout yet with a bunch of schools all at once for our March Splats Madness competition. So it’s snowballing. And I think as schools do go back to school, they’re really thinking about getting kids engaged, making it a really inclusive, approachable place. Incorporating things like this into the day, getting back into group activities, teamwork, they’ve been missing out on and I’m so excited for it. 

And of course, we’ve done everything to get that happening at home as well. But I can’t wait. We’re already seeing the coolest, Twitter videos shared back with us of what’s happening. And they’re all the kids in the mask, but they’re doing the coolest, like pushups and fun fitness routines with the Splats.

So, it’s been, it’s exciting.  

Mike Palmer:  I am picking up a little bit of a CrossFit vibe to some of what you’re describing here.  The other trend that I’ve been really interested in is class outside, the idea of moving to new spaces, getting out of the confines of the traditional classroom that does dovetail with better ventilation. And that does seem the safer way to bring kids back into schools. 

I imagine you play nice in that environment, too.  The Splats can be outside in a courtyard.  Can you use them in different physical contexts?

Bryanne Leeming: They’re not really built for outdoor, although some schools do use it. There’s a school in Hawaii with this cool outdoor courtyard with a roof over it. But the cool thing about them is that they can spread out really far. They can go 50 feet apart across a whole big gym, but so many schools that don’t have that space.

So great about them is that a lot of our classrooms you’ll see they changed the environment. They’ve moved the desks and chairs out to the side.  There’s a really cool foot fire drill for football that is, counting all your steps. But it literally takes two feet of space and you can do one and get really active and sweaty.  

Mike Palmer:  That was the other thing I saw is that it seemed like it would work well with social distancing. And then even as you get to higher density once we’re safe around each other again, a lot of what you’ve designed could work with a relatively large number of kids in a classroom because they’re keeping in their own section when they’re active. 

Bryanne Leeming: Yes, and a lot of teachers like the way we designed it to be a flexible tool. So, teachers are incorporating it in any way that they want to. And we give a lot of supports for that. We have these lesson plans to inspire how you could include it in what you’re doing. But the teachers really decide, and they can do games where it is two kids in one small place or one kid here, and one kid all the way across the room.  

And that’s where the coding comes into it–even games that can be slowed down, sped up, flexible for any learner around what you’re trying to accomplish. And that’s why we spend so much time training the teachers because we want them in 30 days to be an expert so they can incorporate it into all the things they’re doing.PE teachers are incredible at making up games for Splats. Once you give them that tool and how to use this as a tool-oh my gosh, they already have all the games in their head. And they just help the kids create them.  

We had a new market opened up of music teachers through COVID because they’re not able to use their instruments. But we have a teacher, Kathy, in Florida who was using Splats as this giant piano. And she had each kid playing a note all across the room. They weren’t able to use their instruments, their recorders, but they were able to play live music through Covid.  And we have a full library in there for creating garage band style music on these. 

Mike Palmer:  That’s very cool. And I heard you have a big festival of sorts coming up with a convocation of all the Splats users around the world.

Bryanne Leeming: We do, yes. We have Splats Madness coming up in March.  I know you have it too! So, we’re doing that as our second large competition, really collaborative and competitive in some ways between all our schools.

We’re super-excited, more details to come, but it’s getting ready and it’s all going to be about moving and getting kids active.  

Mike Palmer: So, a lot in flight. Things are picking up, which is great. A lot on the horizon as well. Before we wrap up Bryanne, I love to ask my guests what else is happening in the world around us that is capturing your imagination these days? Is there anything we haven’t talked about that our listeners need to keep an eye on? 

Bryanne Leeming: I am really excited with the growth in the education space and just generally the interest in ed tech and how quickly that’s growing. And I think a big part of that’s been really exciting is just the equity and diversity angle of just how many new people are joining the space, wanting to solve problems here, seeing problems, identifying, and starting to either build companies or join companies and solve them.

Diversity has always been a core value of ours. And knowing from the beginning that the highest functioning teams are diverse teams. And that actually implicates a lot of what we do with kids around STEM education and making sure that we’re an on-ramp for diversity in STEM.

And that ends up being the people who are building products that we all use every day and how important it is to have diversity in those rooms that are making decisions. I’m really excited by what I’m seeing and who’s interested in joining our company   

Mike Palmer: You’re probably developing future entrepreneurs and engineers by virtue of them having good, active fun during their school day. That’s a nice way to connect all the dots. 

Bryanne Leeming, the founder and CEO of Unruly Studios, the creators of Unruly Splats. Bryanne, thank you so much for joining us. 

Bryanne Leeming: Thank you. 

Mike Palmer: And for our listeners, if you like what you’re hearing, tell a friend, share us, love us. We are “Trending in Education”. We’ll be back again soon.

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