First, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm a bit of a Nolan Bushnell fangirl. I met him 30 years ago while writing an article about the birth of video games (he started the whole thing with Atari), and have followed his entrepreneurial adventures (Chuck E. Cheese, Etak, Androbot, and others) ever since. So I couldn’t miss a chance to hear him speak at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.
As an electrical engineer, Bushnell has developed a lot of technology and started many companies during his career—some successful and some not. But he’s always passionate, and always focused on technology in pursuit of fun.
These days, Bushnell is focused on completely changing the way kids are educated. It's bold mission, but given that he's already decidedly changed the way kids play, I wouldn’t put it past him.
Bushnell thinks that schools are teaching the wrong things in the wrong way. He says using the power of computers, software, and data analysis, we can teach four years of academics in six months, and spend the rest of the time developing creativity in children through project-based learning. And he’s started a company, BrainRush, to build the software to do this. “Think of it,” he says, “as Wikipedia meets Zynga”
Bushnell says BrainRush’s software will be able to adapt to children in the same way videogames do, by keeping people operating at the edge of their ability, and “leveling up” the minute it starts getting too easy. “Games keep adapting to your skill set and keep you on that edge,” he says, “that’s why video games are so addictive.” He thinks he can make learning just as addictive.
Today Bushnell announced that he will also use tools developed by BrainRush to study learning, starting a nonprofit, BrainRush Labs, to do so. BrainRush Labs will do research on the factors that affect learning, he says. For example, the effect of what a student ate for breakfast. “There are a lot of opinions and no data. It’s the sloppiest science alive.” BrainRush’s software will measure rates of learning, so will be enable researchers to study the impacts of nutrition, exercise, sleep, and other factors.
“In a year, we are going to know more about learning than we have any time before,” Bushnell promised. In a year we’ll check back with him and find out.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.