Getting young children to like science and technology can be a challenging task for teachers. Not only it isn’t a subject most kids are usually keen on learning, but current educational methods are also generally not enticing enough to spark their curiosity. With their videogame ‘Ava & Trix’ – supported by the imec.istart entrepreneurship program – Jill Vanparys, Michèle Vanparys and Dieter Honoré want to help schools stimulate children’s interest in this field. The app is already being used by over 300 schools in Flanders.
The story behind Ava & Trix
Even though her highest grades in high school were in science and math, the lack of motivation to pursue a career in this area led Jill Vanparys to choose a design major at university. However, she always felt that if these subjects had been presented to her in a more compelling way, her choice might have been different. Committed to address situations like hers, Jill joined her sister Michèle and Dieter Honoré to create Curious Cats, the company behind Ava & Trix: a story-driven app for boys and girls between 8 and 11 that encourages them to experiment with science and technology in the classroom in a fun way.
After securing funding from VAF/Game Fund – the Flemish fund for the development of videogames – the founders started developing the app, in September 2015. One year later, the first three episodes of Ava & Trix were launched.
A clumsy cat teaching children to think like scientists
Ava & Trix is a series of three episodes, each lasting two to three hours. It tells the story of two sisters (Ava and Trix) who need to solve the problems created by their clumsy cat, Donder, using the elements – such as matches or oil – they have collected during the game.
“In most tools used to teach science and technology at schools, children are basically repeating the experiments the teacher has showed them beforehand,” explains Dieter Honoré. “With our app, students are the ones that need to come up with - and test - the possible solutions to the proposed problems. More than scientific knowledge, our goal is to foster scientific thinking: formulating hypothesis and experimenting to confirm the result.”
But that’s not the only reason why Ava & Trix stands out from other apps. “We wanted to connect the digital and the physical world,” continues Dieter. “The objects that the characters need to solve the problems can easily be found in a classroom. We encourage children to first try the different approaches in class and only then insert the solution in the app.”
Proving that girls can also be scientists
It is no coincidence that the main characters of Ava & Trix are girls: “We wanted to foster scientific vocation in girls, by creating hip, female lead characters that are curious and adventurous. However, so that the boys wouldn’t feel overlooked, we tried not to make the sisters too ‘girly’ and also included strong, supporting male characters, which accompany the girls in their adventures.”
After VAF/Game Fund, the entrepreneurs were accepted in the imec.istart entrepreneurship program. Next to the financial support – which was crucial in the early stages of development – Dieter Honoré welcomes the unique imec network, which has helped them raise awareness for their project and connected them with potential partners and clients.
The start-up also secured funding from a group of Belgian entrepreneurs who strongly believe in the project’s potential.
First achievements and next steps
The development of the game was done in close collaboration with several schools in Flanders – both teachers and students – which tested and provided feedback on every new feature. This was key to ensure the scientific accuracy, educational potential and overall success of the app, which is already being used by more than 300 schools in Flanders. The start-up also partnered with several Belgian companies who have agreed to donate the app to schools as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility programs.
The founders are now looking to get 300 more schools in Flanders on board, in order to be able to start developing the next episodes of Ava & Trix. “We want to make sure we are successful in Flanders before we take the project abroad,” states Dieter.
The early success of Ava & Trix has also landed the Curious Cats’ team with several other projects. These include a partnership with imec and RVO Society for a game that explains electrical circuits to children. Moreover, together with UZ Ghent, the start-up is developing a game to help teenagers cope with depression, which should work as a complement to traditional therapy.
Currently looking for new customers, Dieter Honoré states the team only has a few requirements: “We want our games to be beautiful and fun at the same time. We want to make children discover themselves and the world around them.”
Meet the founders
Jill Vanparys is the graphic designer at Curious Cats. Before launching the company, in 2002 she was one of the founders of Echtgoed, a graphic design agency. Thanks to Ava & Trix, in 2016 she was recognized as one of MIT Technology Review´s Innovators Under 35 in Belgium.
Michèle Vanparys is the illustrator at Curious Cats. Having graduated from KASK in 2006, she has worked as a freelancer for commercials, music videos, online games and generics of television programs, as well as illustrations for books, packaging and branding.
Dieter Honoré is the legal and business mind behind Curious Cats. With nearly 20 years of professional experience in Law, finance and sales, he also has a strong entrepreneurial background, having worked as a career and a start-up coach before joining the Ava & Trix project.
Want to know more?
Visit the website of Ava&Trix to learn more about their project: https://ava-trix.com