Mobile game designed to take learning anywhere

Abakus: Education Adventure
Hunter Ruth: alumnus, design and visual communication
Josh Kirk: alumnus, business management, MATC

When Hunter Ruth thinks way back to his elementary school days, he remembers some struggle. “I was an advanced elementary school student, but it was almost too easy,” the UWM graduate recalls. “I got bored really quickly.”

What really held his interest, though, were video games. Pokémon in particular captured his imagination, and he played for hours on end. “I always appreciated the spontaneity of Pokémon,” Ruth says. “Traveling through tall grass, or in a dark cave, you never really knew what you’d have to fight next.”

Shortly before Ruth graduated with his degree in design and visual communication from UWM, he took a graphic design course that requires students to think like entrepreneurs and design a new product. Ruth immediately thought back to his experience in elementary school, and to discussions he’d had with his mother and sister, who are both teachers in Minnesota.

“I wanted to introduce a more engaging learning experience, one that didn’t get old for students who weren’t challenged,” he says.

Abakus: Education Adventure was born. It’s a video game that combines state-standard class work in mathematics for elementary school students with the allure of space-themed gaming. As children solve math problems and advance through the levels of the game, they unlock parts to upgrade their spaceship.

Eventually the ship blasts off, and visits other planets, getting bits of information about the Solar System along the way.

While he was designing a prototype of Abakus for his graphic design class, Ruth also began writing code for the game in an information studies class taught by Quinn Madson, lead developer for UWM’s Mobile Innovation Lab, known as the “App Brewery.”

Ruth convinced Madson to work with him on an independent study; as a result, three of his five courses that semester involved work on Abakus. At the same time, Ruth’s best friend and roommate, Josh Kirk, was studying at MATC for a diploma in entrepreneurship, and he devoted his central project to developing business aspects of Abakus.

The friends’ skill sets blend so well that a partnership “just seemed like the right thing to do,” Kirk says.

Before the semester was up, Ruth and Kirk decided to enter Abakus into UWM’s Student Startup Challenge (SSC).

At the same time, students at the App Brewery are helping them rebuild and enhance the app.

The pair is grateful for the help. Ruth works full time at the Milwaukee-based digital agency Northern Ground, and Kirk is pursuing a computer science degree at MATC while also serving as a consultant at the school’s Entrepreneurship Center.

Once the prototype is complete, Ruth and Kirk will seek investors and partner with elementary schools to test Abakus. Ruth’s mom and sister in Minnesota hope to test his product with their own students. “The initial reviews will be our bread and butter,” says Kirk. “It will get us into schools that don’t know about us.”

Update: The prototype is nearly done and then the team will be ready to get feedback from educators and children. The team recently took second place in the New Ventures Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the Lubar School of Business and La Macchia Enterprises, winning $3,500. Plans call for getting it into the App Store and expanding to other platforms as soon as the mobile version is done.