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Tampa app developer taps augmented reality to help kids learn English

Margie Manning

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The MARVL app combines animated augmented reality with research-based best practices for language learning.

A language-learning app that draws on augmented reality can help schools overcome one of their biggest challenges.

The app, MARVL, combined animated augmented reality with research-based best practices for language learning, said Sara Smith, founder and CEO of MARVLoUS.

Sara Smith, founder and CEO, MARVLoUS

“It’s like Pokémon Go if the Pokémon taught you a new language,” Smith said at Tampa Bay Wave’s TechWomen Rising Pitch Night. MARVLoUS is one of 13 women-owned companies participating in the current Tampa Bay Wave TechWomen Rising accelerator cohort.

The company’s market is the $1.17 billion K-12 ed-tech segment in the United States, Smith said. In addition to serving a business-to-business market, there’s a business-to-consumer market opportunity, serving the 1.5 billion students worldwide who spend more than $63 billion on tools to learn English.

“Learning a new language requires learning thousands of new words and it can take up to 12 exposures to a word before you learn it. This presents a serious challenge for the one in four U.S. children who learn English as a new language when they start school. This is our fastest-growing student population, and it is forecasted to reach one in three,” Smith said. “Providing effective, equitable education for our English language learners is one of the biggest challenges facing our public education system today.”

Smith, a language learning researcher with a doctorate in second language acquisition, has seen the problem first-hand.

“I’ve walked into a classroom with 18 students who spoke 17 different languages, and I didn’t speak any of them,” she said.

The best way for a child to learn a new English word is with a supporting definition in their first language, but that’s not always possible because there is a shortage of English as a second language teachers.

That’s where MARVL comes in. MARVL – which stands for multimedia augmented reality vocabulary learning — is a patent-pending app that is immersive and interactive, and can be used in both remote-learning and classroom settings.

“It’s plug and play, versatile and works with different language combinations. Children as young as 4 can learn on their own or with a parent, even if that parent doesn’t speak English,” Smith said. “In our research, we found kindergarteners showed trackable gains after the first day of use, with cascading benefits to parents.”

In addition to Smith, the MARVLoUS team includes Maria Carlo, an educational psychologist with experience in curriculum creation; Sanghoon Park, who has expertise in instructional design and learning technology; Clyde Snodgrass, a serial inventor and product developer; and Murewa Olubela, who specializes in building relationships between startups and diverse stakeholders. There’s also a team of programmers and artists.

MARVLoUS was a finalist in the 2020 Cade Prize, an annual competition named for Dr. James Robert Cade, a physician and professor of medicine at University of Florida who led the team that invented Gatorade in 1965.

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