Teachers Pivot to Help Millions More Students

Science, physics educator duo team up to tackle curriculum and instruction.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Peter Bohacek and Matthew Vonk are former educators and the co-founders of Pivot Interactives, which was recently acquired by Discovery Education. They’ve moved into new roles at Discovery Education as the company’s Directors of Curriculum & Instruction, and the EdTech Digest team recently sat down with them to learn about their journey from the classroom to edtech, how their classroom experience shaped their products, and much more. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

Greetings to you both! Let’s jump right in. Peter, Matt, you are both former educators. Tell readers about your background and what it was that prompted you to get into edtech?

Peter: I’m a 20-year high school science teacher, the best job I’ve ever had. And not long after I became a teacher, I noticed that there were limitations to how students could learn in the classroom. We want our students to learn by actively exploring scientific phenomena but we’re limited by practical constraints. As a teacher, limitations, like limited instructional time, the prep work required, the technology available, safety, and my own expertise, meant that many of the phenomena I wanted students to learn from were inaccessible. To overcome those limitations, in 2010, I started making these interactive videos for my own classroom. Eventually, those videos became Pivot Interactives.

‘…instructional time, the prep work required, the technology available, safety, and my own expertise, meant that many of the phenomena I wanted students to learn from were inaccessible. To overcome those limitations, in 2010, I started making these interactive videos for my own classroom.’

Matt: I’m a 20-year physics professor myself, and when I connected with Peter and saw what he was doing, I at once realized the value of these interactive videos for my own classroom and for teachers around the world. From then on, we collaborated to develop, enhance, and scale Pivot Interactives.

Tell me about Pivot Interactives—what is it? 

Peter (pictured, left): Launched back in 2012, Pivot Interactives makes teaching science with active learning and scientific phenomena engaging, effective, and easy. We provide teachers with more than 9,800 authentic, interactive video-based science activities crafted by Pivot’s expert curriculum team and teacher community. These resources, tied to state and national standards, are infused with research-based teaching practices and are simple to integrate into instruction. 

Matt (pictured, right):Our activities offer opportunities for students to explore and learn for themselves. The platform’s built-in tools—including Iris, a first-of-its-kind color and light gauge—make for quick and accurate measurements. The flexible interface allows students to change important parameters like time, temperature, or movement in the experiment and see how that change affects the outcome. In addition, we supply carefully scaffolded instructions to guide students through the scientific process–observation, posing a question, data collection analysis, and interpretation. Frequent and customized feedback keeps students on track and reinforces correct ideas.

How did your experience in the classroom inform the design of Pivot Interactives?

Peter: Pivot Interactives was born out of the constraints I felt in my classroom and informs absolutely every part of the platform. Having our studio/lab in Two Rivers High School in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, where I still teach, allows us to continually work with teachers and students.

Matt: We are constantly testing and trying new things from Pivot Interactives in our classrooms to make it easier for teachers to do more phenomena-based, active learning!

Many new edtech resources flowed into the classroom during the COVID-19 Pandemic.  What are the 3-4 attributes an edtech resource needs to have to “stick”.

Peter: I think there are really three characteristics that make edtech resources purchased during the COVID-era “stick” in the classroom in the post-COVID world. Those characteristics are engagement, efficacy, and a resource’s ability to efficiently scale best practices.

Matt: That’s right. I think the resources that continue to be valuable post-COVID are driving deeper student engagement in learning and are providing teachers efficiencies that save them time that they can then use to work with their students. Finally, successful edtech resources in the post-COVID world help educators take good pedagogy to scale. For example, we know collaboration and timely feedback are beneficial to students. Tools that easily empower authentic collaboration and offer continuous customized feedback to all students in a classroom would be an incredibly “sticky” edtech resource.

Pivot Interactives was recently acquired by Discovery Education.  Can you tell us about that?  Why Discovery Education?  What makes them a good home for Pivot Interactives? 

Matt: We are excited to be part of the Discovery Education team. When we began the acquisition process, we wanted to find a partner that shared our sense of mission and our passion for making an impact on student learning. When we met the team from Discovery Education, we knew at once that they would be the right company for us to do business with.

Peter: The Discovery Education team stood out to us because they were completely aligned to the goals we set for Pivot Interactives—likely in part because like Pivot, many members of their team at all levels are former educators. The leadership teams in our respective organizations had not only the same vision for what an acquisition would accomplish, but also the same outlook on the role of edtech in education. A shared passion for teaching and learning and complete alignment on our goals really made Discovery Education the perfect home for Pivot.

What is technology’s role in education?

Peter: I think that is an easy one—technology’s role in education is to help the educator scale best practice and improve their impact on teaching and learning.


What is the state of education today? 

Peter: Right now, the state of education is strong. But it’s in a state of flux and I believe in the next few years, the pace of change will only pick up speed. 

What makes you say that?

Matt: Look, during the Pandemic America’s educators again proved they are the most innovative, flexible, dedicated educators in the world. They stood up systems—in some cases, in just days—that helped millions of students continue their learning at home despite the acute social and economic disruptions they were enduring. I think in the coming years, educators’ flexibility will continue to be tested as we process what we learned about teaching and learning during the pandemic and begin applying that in the classroom and beyond. 

What advice do you have for teachers thinking of making the leap into edtech? 

Matt: I think the ed tech space is still in a period of rapid change. That means that there’re still a lot of opportunities and I’d encourage any teacher with a great idea to pursue it in some way. For a few teachers that will mean creating a successful edtech startup. But there are unique challenges of edtech that will likely make other approaches (working on a local level, getting grant funding, affecting political change, or working through non-profits) more effective for some teachers.

Peter: I agree and, I’d like to emphasize that while having a great idea is not sufficient, it is the most important thing. In our case, the reactions from students and teachers, along with the research we conducted, continually confirmed we had an effective solution to a problem faced by every science teacher. But building a market and a company is an entirely different task. For us, doing that required finding effective mentors, tons of work, a willingness to develop a new entrepreneurial and business skills, and yes, lots of luck.

And what advice do you have for entrepreneurs in the edtech space thinking of selling their company? 

Matt: In 2016 we received a National Science Foundation grant to help us commercialize our idea. As part of that award, we took an intensive class on the “lean startup” approach which emphasizes the critical importance of asking for feedback from users at every stage in the development process. We have taken the approach to heart and continue to let it guide our development process. So when we started thinking about how to make our company an attractive acquisition target it seemed natural that we would use the same approach and simply ask some potential edtech companies what they look for in acquisition targets. In the end we asked Discovery Education, “What do we have to do now, so that in two years you’ll want to acquire us.” To our great surprise and satisfaction, the answer was that we didn’t have to make any changes, and that they wanted to acquire us “as is.” While the approach didn’t pan out as planned and while results may vary, I still think it’s a valid approach that other entrepreneurs should consider.

How do you see the future of learning shaping up? What might we see in the next 25 years? How will it look? 

Peter: Oh, I think in 25 years, we will live in a world where various technologies we are only beginning to explore today become integrated into teaching and learning. Resources like Pivot Interactives, coupled with the power of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will usher in a new era of differentiated and personalized learning. Matt, what do you think?

Matt: I think that’s right. I think a big piece of the future personalization of education will be as a result of efforts to give students a greater sense of ownership over their education. Students in the future will have a greater opportunity to tailor their educational experience to their own interests as well as a greater say on when and where they learn. It is an exciting time to be in education for sure!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com


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