Students’ work featured on Dragon’s Den Wednesday

Rohan Mahimker and Alex Peters will be on Dragon's Den Wednesday night, pitching a children's math game that students at Brock University helped to develop

Rohan Mahimker and Alex Peters will be on Dragon's Den Wednesday night, pitching a children's math game that students at Brock University helped to develop

Beatrice Ombuki-Berman plans to spend Wednesday night with her television.

The Brock computer sciences professor will have the channel tuned to the popular business pitch reality show Dragon’s Den, where two young entrepreneurs will ask for money to invest in a children’s educational math game that Ombuki-Berman and a handful of her students helped create.

The program, called Prodigy, is the brainchild of Alex Peters of St. Catharines and Rohan Mahimker of Mississauga. The University of Waterloo graduates founded the company SMARTeacher then received $50,000 from the federal government’s Applied Research and Commercialization Initiative (ARC).

Brock University is one of ARC’s administering bodies in south-central Ontario, and the funding enabled Peters and Mahimker to collaborate with Ombuki-Berman and a crew of Brock students who helped develop the game’s technology.

As everyone toiled away during the summer last year, Ombuki-Berman not only saw her students put their classroom knowledge to work, she saw them mature. Some of the students have gone on to graduate studies in computer science. One even landed a job with SMARTeacher.

“I am very proud of my students who played a crucial role in this collaboration,” Ombuki-Berman said in an email. “Without the creativity and dedication of our computer science students Alex Bailey, Kyle Harrison, Ethan Jackson and Chris Stinson, this collaboration would not have been successful.”

Unlike other games that simply give points and move players on to different levels when they correctly answer questions, Prodigy senses what a child is feeling and takes its cues accordingly.

So, if a child is feeling frustrated by the math problems generated, the game provides easier questions and hints.

If they’re a budding math whiz and getting bored, the difficulty is increased, all thanks to a bio-sensor - similar to the technology used in lie detector tests - that the player wears like a watch.

It’s a concept that appealed to Ombuki-Berman, who’s passionate about putting Artificial Intelligence to practical use.

It was also an opportunity for student Kyle Harrison to get a glimpse of what’s involved in starting up a tech company.

And Harrison, an undergrad at the time of helping to develop the server side of the program so that it could be used on a personal computer and communicate with a remote server that would enable game updates and changes, is grateful.

“I always take pride in my work and am thrilled to see that a project I was a part of is having such great success,” Harrison said.

“I’m also quite happy to see the company’s success as a whole. I have a lot of respect for the founders and the journey they have embarked on with this project. It was a great idea and I’m glad to see it finally getting at least some of the recognition it deserves.”

Now student, teacher and Peters are hopeful the dragons, some of Canada’s top business minds, will give SMARTeacher the money needed to turn program into a household name.

Earlier this year, Peters and Mahimker auditioned to be on the CBC show where entrepreneurs ask for cash in return for a share of their startups and “just did a terrible job.”

But a surprise phone call from a producer and 72 hours to prepare for a second chance was all the duo needed to get on TV.

Though he can’t say how he and Mahimker fared in front of the dragons, Peters was clear they wouldn’t have been there without the grant and Brock.

“Your students were great at making sure the end product was something kids would be excited about. We went from what was essentially a school project but with the help of Brock, we were able to put it front of customers,” he said.

“If we didn’t have that development help, we wouldn’t be putting this product on air.”

Dragon’s Den airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CBC.

Posted on October 31, 2012

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