From teacher to Kide Science entrepreneur: towards transformative learning experiences for children and adults

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One autumn evening, my colleague Emilia Tuovila and I stood in front of the Kumpula university campus, shouldering huge Ikea bags. The bags were full of items like pipettes, spoons, cups, ladles, baking soda, vinegar, and robots built with duct tape. In other words, a usual collection of things for a science club instructor.

This is when I first said that I would be really happy if this could be my full-time occupation. However, I had no idea what was to come.

Six years later, we signed a contract with Accelerate Learning, a US-based pioneer in science education. We made history by being the first Finnish education company to be sold across the pond. Believe me when I say that the road from teacher student to a startup entrepreneur with an exit has not been straightforward or easy. Something I can say, however, is that it has been filled with incredibly funny mishaps, huge successes, moments of despair and survival. 

But how can business logic and doing good be combined for the benefit of early childhood education?

Let’s travel back in time. We started operations with a sheer passion for learning. I had seen how much of a revolutionary experience it can be for a child to be in an environment where science is approached on their terms: wondering, telling stories, openly exploring and laughing. We wanted as many little ones as possible to be able to be their own researcher – that is, practice the skill that is inherent in all children – without the dreary imagery associated with natural sciences about old men in white coats, who always know everything. We believed that this imagery pushes many young people away from the world of exploration.

At the time, we were not quite able to verbalize that in the end what we were doing was related to play. Nor did we realize just then that we were promoting all basic learning skills. And now that we look back, the insight is very simple: all learning requires the ability to observe one’s environment, communicate one’s experiences and combine information. If this process can be implemented in such a way that it provides enough positive experiences and an appropriate amount of perseverance and successes, then it can really be a great learning experience.

In other words, we started out as entrepreneurs with the really stereotypical idea that we want to make the world a better place. Even though it is such a cliché, this has never changed. 

As teachers, we wanted to make sure that the model we developed could be accessible to all children and that our innovation would also have a form that is public and easily accessible to everyone. We started our business at the same time as the Finnish children’s TV programme Pikku Kakkonen was launching their new show Tiedonjyvä (“grain of knowledge”). Watching the first episode of the programme, together with a group of friends, was an utterly confusing experience. Frankly, I did not recognise the Pikku Kakkonen auntie as myself, but I was immensely proud and happy about the beautiful experience we had with the incredible team at Tohloppi. 

As we came out of the buzz of Pikku Kakkonen, we really started putting in a lot of work. We travelled around Finland and the world to talk about the importance of science education, established the (already buried) Kide Science Learning Centre in Malaysia, did our first public pitch and carried out a funding round. Although this all sounds really glamorous, in fact, I would often finish a very long workday by sorting out various bric-a-brac and cups into boxes to prepare for the next test session. I would often also be at the end of my wits with the digital product project I was leading. Things didn’t always go as planned, and sometimes it felt like most of the successes we had, came by mistake. 

One great aspect of our company was, and still is, that people with a background in teaching are also really good at developing things and enabling learning. This also happened for our company. We would notice when things didn’t go as planned, and we would then change our approach. A concrete example: When we hosted our first team meetings, they lasted 2.5 hours, were filled with a lot of talk and nobody took any notes. The same things would keep appearing from week to week on the agenda of the meetings. That irritated me. So, what did we do? We changed our policies, one step at a time! And, lo and behold, over the years we learned to facilitate our meetings and clarify our working methods so that important work tasks were no longer forgotten in the hubbub of the meetings. Now the meetings are mostly focused and concise in just the right way. (Okay, sometimes we slip into our old habits, but that’s life too!)

We were also fortunate to have a tremendously great support and the ability to look for it. We were greatly helped by our financier Reaktor, an internationally award-winning IT consulting company. They sparred with us often, as we needed help in product development, altering working methods, defining goals and clarifying the company’s values. And to all the teachers reading this, I want to say: in many ways, the business world is not as cruel or money-centric as I expected. I found myself in situations where we discussed our own needs and wishes, or how our customers could more easily do their important work. There has always been a genuine desire to improve and do good.

The most important support we have received has always come from children and teachers. Now, after six years in business, my role as a customer researcher is to work more with teachers, but I find that I often miss working with children. I remember moments when I would sit with the small researchers in a Helsinki day care centre, helping the robot Hoseli with our research. The children helped us, and still help, to create better sessions and training for early childhood education. Our robot became so dear to many that they had to hug him and they would listen to his instructions with a keen ear. And the insights: “Hoseli, salt makes things float! Hoseli, actually ice is WATER!” And best of all: “Hoseli, when will you come the next time?”

I will now return to the question I asked earlier: how can business logic and doing good be combined for the benefit of early childhood education? 

A company is always driven by its values and whether these values are implemented in daily work. The values we consider to be important have always been  

1. being based on research 2. supporting the study and play of young children

3. a psychologically safe work environment for teamwork. 

In our daily work, we come together as a team to solve problems together, discuss with customers on a weekly basis, conduct scientific research and analyse customer needs in order to better support adults and children in early childhood education. When values and practices are truly aligned, companies produce innovations for early childhood education that REALLY make teachers’ lives easier and provides children with access to high-quality pedagogy. 

There are a lot of things that can be done in the business world that teachers cannot do in the rush of everyday life. We can focus all our time on making the early childhood education plan concrete, planning and testing the sessions, listening to teachers and children, and developing our service. In addition to this, we have digital product development professionals – product managers, designers, customer researchers and coders – to bring the sessions before the eyes of teachers in a format that is as understandable as possible. Although, in an ideal world, teachers would perhaps design everything themselves only for the needs of the children in their group, this almost never happens in practice. It is good that there are different companies that can also make high-quality pedagogical material for early childhood education – this frees up trained teachers to make decisions about what works for their group and the way they teach. That’s why we are here: companies that are genuinely involved in early childhood education, facilitating the work of teachers. 

Today, I get to talk to teachers and school management from all over the world to better understand their needs. At the heart of it all is, and always will be, research-based and effective pedagogy that helps early childhood educators in their work with the little researchers. I know that I have succeeded in my work if I have been able to bring these insights into our product, together with my colleagues, and we hear a teacher being interviewed give out a yelp of joy – or we see the little researchers falling in love over and over again with the sessions with the robot Hoseli.

Aino Kuronen, teacher

Co-founder & Head of User Insight at Kide Science powered by Accelerate Learning

Other co-founders: Jenni Vartiainen & Sari Hurme-Mehtälä

Kide Science was founded in 2017 in Finland by three women and has gained customers from more than 30 countries. A total of EUR 3.5 million of funding has been raised internationally. 

In October 2023, 100% ownership of Kide Science was sold to Accelerate Learning Inc., but the company continues its product development from Finland in exactly the same way as before and with the same team.

Kide Science has won many international awards in the field of education, but in Finland it has also been selected as the best learning solution and educational export product by Education Finland. 

The jury statement is as follows: 

“Kide Science is an inspiring solution that sparks the desire to learn and experiment. It provides insights and a joy of learning and appeals to a wide audience. The jury sees the solution’s massive potential to be an impressive, significant, and even world-changing solution.”

The jurists consisted of Secretary of State Tuomo Puumala from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture as chair and as members Director General Minna Kelhä from the Finnish National Agency for Education, CEO Aija Bärlund from FIBAN, Board member Mika Ihamuotila from Marimekko, Director of International Affairs Lenita Toivakka from Chamber of Commerce as well as professor Jarmo Viteli from the University of Tampere.