Today, K-12 schools understand the importance of STEM classes, but many have neither the expertise nor the budget to keep up with a dynamic course load of science, technology, engineering and math.
That’s the impetus behind NCLab, a Reno-based start-up launched two years ago by Pavel Solin, an associate professor of scientific computing at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The company uses open-source software and cloud computing to deliver STEM classes more affordably.
An example is three-dimensional modeling using computer-aided design software. Commercial CAD programs, says Solin, cost upwards of $10,000 a user license, out of the reach of most schools.
“On the other hand, open source software does almost the same thing and is freely available,” says Solin.
But open source software is not easy for the average user to install and comes with no support. So NCLab provides both and adds the front-end application needed to connect to DigitalOcean servers, where the courses run.
“That’s the tricky part, making it accessible via a Web browser,” says Solin. “Kids need to manipulate 3D objects in the browser, but it runs on the server and calls to the cloud.”
So far, NCLab is offering more than a dozen classes and working with about two dozen schools, including Piñon Hills Elementary School in Douglas County, Hawthorne Junior High and Hunsberger Elementary School in Reno.
The most popular course is introduction to programming, a class geared to 4th or 5th graders that Solin developed himself without the benefit of open source software.
“We travel to schools a lot to teach teachers computer programming and explain the importance of this. Programming is one of the best jobs for the future and one of the best things kids can learn,” says Solin. “Teachers get it, but they can’t teach it themselves.”
A license costs $900 for 30 accounts for 12 months. The class takes about a month so a school can rotate students, teaching at least three to four groups for $10 or less per student.
“We have competition, but they charge as much as $50 a student,” says Solin.
In the near term, Solin plans to focus on marketing and more outreach to teachers, who often need to see the product demonstrated to understand its potential.
So far, Solin and a partner have financed the start-up, which now employs about eight part-time developers, graphic designers and illustrators.
“We’re still a start-up so everyone is working on this part time, but we hope to make it full time soon,” says Solin.
And he’s received invaluable help from the Nevada Small Business Development Center at UNR.
“They’re mentoring me,” he says. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a scientist.”