AMES, Iowa (Dec. 2018) – What if the next kid you inspire is the one that discovers a cure for cancer?
This is the question that drives Dr. Yen Verhoeven, founder and CEO of Qi (pronounced “Key”) Learning Research Group. Verhoeven is on a quest to disrupt traditional teaching methods and learning theories in STEM education by empowering teachers with the resources they need to create inquiry-based student labs.
Addressing the gap
According to Verhoeven, the United States faces a big problem regarding the STEM workforce pipeline. Three out of five of elementary-aged children are testing below proficiency in math and science (PISA 2015 Results), and yet, by 2020, over 77% of the workforce will need STEM skills. Americans agree that action is needed — in a company news release reporting results from its fourth annual STEM survey, Emerson, a Missouri-based technology and engineering company, stated that two out of five Americans believe the United States’ STEM worker shortage is at a crisis level. Of those that were surveyed, only one out of three adults believe teachers have the resources they need to provide a quality STEM education.
Qi Learning Research Group was started in April 2018 as a digital platform to address this gap through teaching and growing a professional community of elementary school teachers who share ideas, mentor each other, and teach STEM. The platform is twofold: it serves as a sort of networking stage for teachers to talk about science and discuss what they are doing in class, as well as a place to offer vetted content aligned to curriculum standards. Using mini-courses, workshops, evaluation, consulting, and diverse partnerships, Qi Learning does the translational work of helping people understand the processes involved in teaching and learning STEM, and helps teachers save time and energy when they are developing their curricula.
In Iowa, elementary teachers receive a daily 15 minutes allocation for STEM, and Verhoeven wants to make that time count.
“Our notions of STEM are very different than what we actually need to do in order to teach and do STEM,” she says. “I like to use the example of learning how to drive. We have to read the manual and take a test, but how many people are pros at driving after just reading a manual? We have to get behind the wheel and practice to truly learn.”
A new theory of learning
Verhoeven discovered her own passion for education while working at a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also comes from a long line of teachers. Teaching English Language Learning (ELL) students helped her understand the need for visuals and interactive teaching methods. When she was introduced to the concept of strategic literacy, Verhoeven knew she was on to something revolutionary. Strategic literacy leverages how people naturally learn; the goal is to draw students in with a question, then steer them along as they make their own observations, judgements and assessments.
“I would ask students to self-evaluate their work and decide what grades they thought they deserved. This gave them the opportunity to learn how to advocate for themselves and explain how and why they earned certain grades,” says Verhoeven. “I also saw an increase in student confidence when they became less concerned with answering the ‘right’ way and more interested in the process of reaching a conclusion.”
In addition to over 11 years of high school and college teaching experience, Verhoeven co-founded the BioTech SYSTEM consortium at the University of California at Davis, consisting of the university, three high schools and a community college, to create a pipeline to a biotech degree. She has designed curriculum, mentored preservice teachers and trained faculty at the University of Rochester, and was a program evaluator for the Noyce Scholars program. Verhoeven recently completed her PhD at the University of Rochester, and proposed the first theory of learning from a digital space called Interactive Spatial Learning (ISL) in her doctoral thesis.
Since moving to Iowa, Verhoeven has been an active member in the school district and Ames community. In the 2017-2018 school year, she served as a consultant to the Ames Community School District and helped guide elementary teachers in how they can use inquiry-based science to make STEM more engaging and interactive for their students — now, each grade from K-6 has at least two labs per year. She has also formed a partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Story County to provide more children with access to STEM opportunities. Verhoeven currently serves on the Iowa Innovation Council Education Technology workgroup.
After hearing about the Iowa State University Startup Factory from a peer in the StartUp Ames group, Verhoeven knew that she had to apply. She became a member of the Startup Factory’s fifth cohort in June of 2018, and says that the experience has been extremely helpful and empowering.
“The ISU Startup Factory has taught me so much about what it means to run a business; things that I would have never thought of,” Verhoeven says. “It has truly been life-changing to receive the guidance and support during this program to build upon Qi Learning and help the company maximize its reach and impact.”
Qi learning is already on the trajectory for success — the company has received funding from multiple sources, including a $100,000 Phase I Misk Grand Challenges grant.
Verhoeven shows no sign of slowing down. Others refer to her as “Yendora’s Box”, a play on the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, for her versatility as a teacher and fiery desire to disrupt the traditional education system. She is ready to change the world, and the ISU Startup Factory is proud to support her and Qi Learning as they blaze a new path for STEM educators.
About Qi Learning Research Group
Founded in 2018 by Dr. Yen Verhoeven, Qi Learning Research Group is driven by the belief that education is the key to breaking down barriers, empowering people, and evolving the world. Using mini-courses, workshops, evaluation, consulting, and partnerships, Qi Learning does the translational work of helping people understand the processes involved in teaching and learning STEM. Qi Learning specializes in bringing STEM to educators through labs, consulting, workshops, supportive networks, and other resources. For more information regarding Qi Learning Research Group, call (443) 340-6962 or visit https://qilearning.com
About ISU Startup Factory
The Iowa State University (ISU) Startup Factory is a 52-week intensive program housed at the ISU Research Park (ISURP). Entrepreneurs in the Startup Factory receive formal training, resources, and access to a network of business mentors, advisors, counselors, and investors in two 26-week blocks: the first a formal curriculum centered on business validation, and the second, customized to their individual business needs. For more information on the ISU Startup Factory program, call 515-294-7444 or visit https://www.isustartupfactory.org/