From Teacher-Tinkerer to Edtech CEO

A veteran educator’s long road to establishing a trusted brand—and some advice.

HOW WE DID IT | by Dave Vernier

When I first started my career as a physics teacher at an inner-city school in Cleveland, I knew that job was for me because of my love and passion for physics. However, I couldn’t say the same for my students.

While their attitude toward physics was difficult to overcome, they challenged me to find a way to engage them in the material.

I changed my approach from lecturing and notetaking to interactive, hands-on investigations that involved students in scientific discovery. After a few years working with these students, I pursued Master’s degree in general science at Oregon State University. After I graduated, I taught high school physics for eight years in my new home state of Oregon.

A Long Time Ago, Something Changed

In the late 1970s, small computers became somewhat affordable for the first time. I was able to get one at my school and started writing programs to assist with my teaching. It was immediately obvious that these programs were a great help. They helped students graph data quickly, and they helped with data analysis.

In the summer of 1981, I spent the summer tinkering with software and hardware that enabled a computer to do timing and read and graph temperatures with the idea that other physics might also find the things I was working on useful.

For the next school year, I went back to the classroom while starting a small company with my wife, Christine Vernier, to see if we could sell any of the computer programs.

After a few years, there was enough interest in the products that we knew it could not remain a part-time business. The time had come to stop teaching so I could dedicate my time to growing the business and creating new products to assist science teachers.

A Work in Progress

After more than 35 years in business, Christine and I are still working on this project.

Vernier Software & Technology’s goal remains the same:

To create products that are easy to use, durable, cost effective, and that help students make instantaneous connections between scientific concepts they are learning in textbooks and what they are doing in the lab.

Since our beginning, we have branched out beyond physics and have created products and lab books for chemistry, biology, engineering education, environmental sciences classes, as well as K–8 science classes.

Vernier Software & Technology now has 115 employees, and our products are used worldwide by educators and students from primary schools to universities.

Secrets to Our Success

We attribute our success to our focus on providing educators with quality tools they need. Each business decision we make, as well as the company culture we create, keep teachers’ needs front and center. Below are key attributes to running a successful education company.

1. Don’t lose touch with the customer or their needs.

Even though my wife and I have been running this company for more than 35 years, it is common practice for me to answer the phone when an educator calls. This helps me keep tabs on what teachers are excited about and gives us the information we need to adapt so we continue to serve teachers in the best ways possible.

For example, each of our lab books is available in print or as an electronic download, depending on the teacher’s preference. All lab books also come with Electronic Resources, which allow educators to download the most updated versions of experiments and provide editable word-processing files of the book’s student pages so they can edit experiments to match their teaching style.

2. Provide free resources.

One of the most important things you can do to help educators with implementation of your products is to provide free resources that help teachers understand your products better.

Vernier Software & Technology offers a plethora of free resources for educators, including free hands-on science workshops, online “Tech Tip” video tutorials, free previews of our products, and an online community where educators can get help, trade used equipment, look at DIY projects, and discuss experiment ideas with other educators.

3. Pick great partners.

Every partner we work with provides an added bonus for our teachers. When we partnered with Texas Instruments in the early 1990s, our engineers teamed up with theirs to create a number of graphing programs that were compatible with the graphing calculators educators already used, sparing them an added hardware expense. Vernier also has developed several sensors that connect directly to a Texas Instruments (TI) calculator.

In more recent years, we’ve partnered with the National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA) for the Vernier/NSTA Technology Awards.

We also became the exclusive distributor of Pivot Interactives, an online video platform that allows college and high school students to interact with experiments that are difficult or impossible to set up in the classroom.

We now manufacture the KidWind wind and solar energy science kits, as well as write curriculum to support these kits.

4. Keep prices affordable and easy to use.

We hear every day that school funding is not what it should be. We know that teachers are very busy and do not have a lot of time to spend learning new software or hardware. We know we need to make products that are easy to use and affordable.

BONUS: Keep the passion for the industry alive.

In addition to attending many conferences each year and talking to educators on the phone almost every day, I have gotten more involved in teaching students coding while using Vernier sensors in projects. These efforts have led to students using our sensors with ArduinoTM, LEGO® MINDSTORMS®, LabVIEWTM, and other software and hardware platforms.

Dave Vernier is the Co-Founder of Vernier Software & Technology. Connect with him through their website.

 

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