Raleigh start-up brings ‘BetaBox’ to local schools

cmyers@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2014 

BetaVersity’s Beta Box is a portable world of tech exploration. The mobile lab will resume its travels in August.

CLARE MYERS - CMYERS@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

— Getting cash-strapped schools to try tech-based methods of teaching might seem like a difficult task. But Sean Newman Maroni has a simple strategy: put the technology in front of them.

Maroni, the founder and CEO of the Raleigh-based start-up BetaVersity, is passionate about the idea of active learning.

“We don’t want people to be passive,” he said, adding that he believes “learning-by-doing” is the most effective way to learn.

His company works with schools and institutions to build innovative learning areas, or “BetaSpaces.” But a long-standing tradition of lecture-based teaching – and the high price tag of educational technology – can put the brakes on these initiatives.

Maroni wants to change that. In March, BetaVersity launched the “BetaBox,” a bright blue-painted shipping container that takes BetaSpaces on the road. The mobile container features a 3-D printer, a laser cutter and a 3-D scanner, as well as a variety of “speed of thought materials,” such as toothpicks, pipe cleaners and Legos, that let students build prototypes on the spot.

The space also has touchscreen doors so that students can interact with a wider community. One door gives students problems they can solve, posed by other students or, potentially, corporate sponsors. The other lets them share their solutions on social media.

Maroni hires out the portable pod for a limited amount of time, whether a one-day rental or a lease of over a year. Typically a Betabox runs between $3,000 and $5,000 per day, depending on staffing, transport and equipment needs.

So far, the BetaBox has visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and the entrepreneur hub HQ Raleigh, where BetaVersity has office space.

Although it is not available over the summer, as Maroni and his team are working to upgrade the space and build another for its St. Louis location. He said the team will begin to rent it out again in August.

UNC will be showcasing the pod again, and this fall, St. Timothy’s School in Midtown has plans to become the first grade school to feature a BetaBox.

Maroni uses the Betabox as a way to help persuade schools and universities to create their own learning-by-doing spaces.

“Betabox is really a way to get the name out there, and the mission,” he said.

The price of integrating technology into a campus has long been a factor in keeping schools from experimenting with tech-based methods, despite their potential benefits. A 3-D printer, for example, can give an engineering student the chance to experiment with creating prototypes or allow a chemistry student to examine a physical model of a molecule. But just one 3-D printer can cost over $1,000 dollars, a prohibitively steep price for schools facing slashed budgets.

According to Maroni, however, using learning-by-doing strategies can actually be more cost-effective. He says this is because active learning works better, giving schools more bang for their buck.

“It can be valuable, especially in underserved communities,” he explained. “It’s been shown that learning-by-doing can help level the playing field.”

Eventually, BetaVersity plans to expand into education on a national scale. For them, the summer is what Maroni describes as “a mad push” to get ready for the months ahead. For now, the BetaBox sits in storage, empty of students and high-tech equipment, waiting for August.

Myers: 919.829.4696

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