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This Ames startup is transforming STEM education

This story is the first in a series titled “EdTech In Iowa,” an exploration of startups, individuals and trends in Iowa’s edtech ecosystem. The series is sponsored by Iowa EdTech Collaborative, a network of internationally-known education companies, successful edtech startups, educators, and economic development leaders working collectively to grow human-centered K-12 and lifelong learning in Iowa.

Dr. Yen Verhoeven is on a quest to disrupt traditional teaching methods.

In April 2018, Verhoeven started Qi Learning Research Group as an online platform where school teachers can go to share ideas, mentor each other, and receive tools and resources to teach STEM more effectively.

The Qi Learning platform is twofold: it serves as a sort of networking 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 partnerships, Qi Learning helps teachers save time and energy when they are developing their curricula.

“Qi Learning is a company that takes theory from education and brings it to practice with teachers,” said Verhoeven. “We’re really about understanding the fundamental theories behind how we learn and then developing and helping teachers take those theories and actually apply them to the classroom.”

Verhoeven’s theory, called Interactive Spatial Learning (ISL), is based on how we naturally learn through interactions in our environment. Her theory posits that learning happens primarily through three different ways—interaction, identity work, and community. 

Prior to starting Qi Learning, Verhoeven co-founded the BioTech SYSTEM consortium at the University of California at Davis, a K-14 STEM education consortium in collaboration with regional colleges and universities, community organizations, local governments, school districts and industry partners in the greater Sacramento Valley. 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. 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.

Within a year of starting Qi learning, Verhoeven received a $100,000 Gates-MiSK Grand Challenges grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, outcompeting more than 3,000 companies from all around the world.

“We used that money to create a resource library, teach a class, pulled in a bunch of data from that, and that really got us started.” That grant fueled our work to create the STEAM Café platform, which provides community support, professional development, and free resources to K-6 teachers.

“The STEAM Café platform acts like a hub where teachers can go to find resources, online professional development classes, articles on teaching STEM, content creation partners, and community. The resources provided are vetted and curated by Qi Learning, and the company provides guidelines and rubrics to help people assess the viability of the information available on the Internet.

Last year, the Qi Learning was accepted into ISU Startup Factory’s ninth cohort and was awarded a $25,000 Proof of Commercial Relevance loan from the IEDA.

In July, the group began offering its yearlong flagship “Fierce and Fearless STEAM Teacher’s Program.” The program provides mentorship and support for cross-platform teaching.

In addition to providing its services to individual teachers directly, Qi Learning is also working with the Iowa EdTech Collaborative to connect with school districts looking for professional development.

The program is also integrated with Drake University, allowing teachers who go through ‘fierce and fearless’ to receive college credit for it.

In addition to its Fierce and Fearless STEAM program, Qi learning began providing new resources to help teachers with distance learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the new resources include pandemic teaching practices and strategies,a distance learning toolkit, and self-care for exhausted educators.

This Ames startup is transforming STEM education | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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