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Teaching with technology

When David Vernier left his job as a physics teacher to start his own company, he discovered that lessons learned in the classroom would serve him well in the business world.

David Vernier

Throughout my education, I was always interested in science, and physics in particular. To me, learning physics was more than just memorizing content; it was about truly understanding concepts. My fascination with physics led me to choose it as my major subject when I did my undergraduate degree at Ohio State University, here in the US. However, like many students, I never thought much about how I’d use my degree until about six months before graduation, when I decided I’d pursue a teaching career. After graduation, I took a job as a high school physics and physical science teacher.

My new job was at an inner-city school in Cleveland, Ohio, and my students were tough on me; they didn’t care much for science or what I had to say. This ended up being a blessing in disguise though, because I quickly learned that I needed to do something different to engage them in learning. I found that interactive, hands-on activities and investigations involved the students first-hand in the scientific discovery process rather than allowing them to become passive observers. To be honest, my students were right: lecturing is boring.

After a few years, I moved to Oregon, where I earned a master’s degree in general science from Oregon State University. For the next eight years, I taught high-school physics in my new home state. Then, in 1981, while looking for summer work (and not having much luck because of the weak economy) I started programming, tinkering with software applications that would show my students real-world data and scientific phenomena in real time. Eventually, these applications led to the creation of what is now Vernier Software & Technology, but it certainly didn’t happen overnight. In our first year, my wife (and business partner) Christine and I sold only a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of products, most of them off the back of an advertisement we’d placed in a popular-physics magazine for a suite of six programs that I had developed.

An evolving business

Over the next three years, I continued teaching, and Christine continued her full-time job, while we sold the programs on the side. Eventually, though, the demand for the applications became too great to handle in our spare time, and the best solution was for me to dedicate my time solely to the company. I stopped teaching and focused on growing the business and creating new products for science education. In particular, I worked on creating a program that made live, real-time graphs so that students could almost instantaneously make connections between what they were learning and what they were seeing on their computer screens.

These first-generation graphing and simulation programs ended up being a major game-changer for the company. Before I left teaching, I used them in my own classes, and they were the basis for what has become our company’s core curriculum of physics and science products. Our challenge back then, as it is today, was to make easy-to-use, durable and (most importantly) cost-effective technologies for schools to use. School budgets are always tight and teachers’ time is valuable, so we consider both factors when we develop new products. Today, after more than 30 years, Vernier has more than 100 full-time employees, and we have expanded beyond physics into products to support lessons in chemistry, biology, engineering, environmental sciences and science classes for younger children. Our technology is used worldwide by educators and students from primary schools to universities; including more than 2600 schools in the UK.

Practical tips

Much of the success of Vernier can be attributed to the sound – and often conservative – business decisions we have made through the years. While we’ve never taken a business class, Christine and I have always aimed to make decisions that were in the best interest of our company, employees and customers. We’ve sometimes gone by the seat of our pants, but we have never taken big risks or borrowed money, giving us total control over company decisions.

Regardless of the industry you work in, I think it is important to keep in mind that technology is always evolving and it’s hard to predict what the “next big thing” will be. Our response to this has always been to avoid investing too heavily in a single type of technology. For example, many of our products currently run on Android devices and Chromebooks – laptop computers that run Google’s Chrome operating system rather than Windows or Apple’s iOS. Do I think these technologies will fade away like Palm Pilots did in the early 2000s? No, but I would never bet the bank on it.

My experience in classrooms, especially those challenging years back in Cleveland, has been tremendously helpful in guiding the development of Vernier products. The importance of hands-on education in the sciences is instilled in our employees too, many of whom are also former classroom teachers. This background helps us focus on developing high-quality, budget-friendly products with interfaces that are dynamic and relevant for students, yet easy for teachers to use.

The best advice I have for building a successful business is to make sure you have a good product. It’s ultimately what will make or break a company; you can have the best marketing in the world, but if your product is of poor quality or does not meet customer needs, you won’t be successful. So conduct focus groups, test your ideas and run trials to make sure your great idea translates to a truly great product.

David Vernier is a former physics teacher and the co-founder of Vernier Software & Technology, www.vernier.com