​UNSW's Arludo is making STEM more exciting one AR game at a time

Dr Michael Kasumovic kicked off his augmented reality startup Arludo two years ago in hope of making evolutionary biology exciting in a smartphone-saturated world.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

With students so heavily immersed in the mobile world and becoming less engaged in learning as a result, Dr Michael Kasumovic, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), decided to take things into his own hands. He developed a new kind of learning method, one aimed at making evolutionary biology exciting and something students are more eager to explore.

"Students are interested but the ideas are quite abstract so often students have a hard time wrapping their heads around some of the ideas," Kasumovic said.

"Add to that students don't even come into class anymore because their lives are so busy. So I thought I really needed something to try and bring students back to class."

To do that, Kasumovic told ZDNet he needed to use a medium they were very familiar with -- the mobile phone.

The lecturer kicked off an experiment about three years ago through the use of virtual reality (VR). His first game put students in the shoes of the animals they were learning about, requiring them to run around the field as a male spider looking for a mate, while trying to catch food and avoid predators.

Pleased with the immediate results, Kasumovic turned to SAE Quantum, a Sydney-based technical college that works with students in creative medias, including game development.

A few interns joined Kasumovic at the university and together they created a small augmented reality (AR) prototype of a game that had students as male birds seeking a mate.

"Everyone really enjoyed it, even though it was really buggy because it was our first attempt," he explained. "That's where I decided this could actually work."

Kasumovic told ZDNet he scraped up as much money as he could, and within three months, he and his team had built six apps and started trialling them with a bunch of different students.

18 months later, Kasumovic's startup Arludo now boasts 20 apps, seven staff, a full infrastructure hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), and a business model that he's getting ready to release to teachers and the public.

To Kasumovic, if banks are developing technology to be where the customer is, it's only natural that education should be, too.

"It seems that industry has realised that everyone interacts with mobile phones now. Education is probably 10 to 15 years back -- we're still focusing on computers. The way they are with everyone sitting in front of a laptop, [it's] inherently isolating, while mobile phones are inherently social. I think if we want to bring students back and bring back that social interaction in classes we have to go where students are, and that's mobile phones," he explained.

"They feel very comfortable using phones -- and with over 50 percent of phone users feeling that they can't deal with a day without having their phone, you know it's something that students kind of need."

Kasumovic set out to use technology to let students experience the topic they're learning about. Rather than just trying to push the envelope, it was about utilising the tech while being in tune with the students.

"The goal of the games we're developing is to provide students with a peak into what's so interesting about that topic ... like a guidance councillor for different career paths that allows students to see what else is out there -- providing a different eye into STEM that isn't just IT support," he said.

Arludo is also starting an outreach program where PhD students visit classrooms to give high school students the opportunity to perform "real science".

Kasumovic wants to take the tech to rural high schools, as many schools outside of the big smoke may be missing this kind of interaction the most.

As previously highlighted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the world is facing a global skills shortage. Infosys has also reported that young Australians are ill-prepared for the digital economy that stands before them.

Infosys found that young Australians were the least confident of their technical abilities and job prospects. While they are highly aware of the need to learn new skills, Australians are also the least interested in improving their knowledge in STEM-related fields, the firm revealed.

Less than one-fifth wanted to develop data skills, build mobile apps, or learn how to code; even fewer, or 3.41 percent, had a desire to work for a startup over a large company.

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