Out of her project that she created in Landmark's Self-Expression and Leadership Program, Lopa Mehrotra embarked on an innovative quest to allow young people to collaborate and experiment together in science. The idea is TestToob, a website that gives young people the tools to post videos and view and rate videos of other young people. More social networking tools are being added to the site. The project has gained attention from the media in her area, including Louisville, Kentucky's Courier-Journal. Parts of the story appear below.
Out of the Lab and onto the Web
by Bill Wolfe
TestToob, an online community where young people can collaborate on science, was "born in the backyard and incubated on the kitchen table," its founder says. Now the promising Louisville startup is leaving the nursery. The www.testtoob.com website is open for business, though still in its beta phase. And the company has been attracting attention.
TestToob received a $25,000 ICC Concept Pool Fund Award of the state-funded Kentucky Enterprise Fund this year. On September 25, its founder and chief executive, Lopa Mehrotra, will speak at the IdeaFestival in Louisville on "Changing the world: One backyard experiment at a time."
To understand TestToob, think of YouTube for science fans. Geared for middle school and high school students, the TestToob site lets members post videos of their science experiments, view science videos posted by other students and rate them. In coming months, it will add more features of social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, with avenues for sharing personal information, posting photos and participating in forums.
The idea for the business came last year, said Mehrotra, who was raised in Boston and lived in several cities before moving to Louisville five years ago. The mother of two said she was looking for a way to integrate technology and education, and for measures that could make science education more appealing.
First she considered a television show on "kids in Kentucky doing science in their own backyard," said Mehrotra, 37. The problem was, "TV is so expensive, and I don't even know if anybody watches TV anymore."
Mehrotra decided on another approach one day in August of last year, when she saw her daughter Ariana, then 6, in their backyard playing with a couple of rocks.
"She said, It's amazing, Mom." Mehrotra recalled. "If I scratch these gray rocks, they turn white. It's like magic."
"Aren't you a little scientist?" Mehrotra said, and her daughter answered: "Yeah. And this is my experiment."
Mehrotra ran for a video camera and recorded Ariana describing her observations. "She had this whole vision about it and was so excited to tell me," Mehrotra said. "I thought immediately about all the social networking applications, such as YouTube and Facebook."
Ariana's sister, Ayala, then 4, said: "That looks easy. I want to do it," Mehrotra said. "So then we did a video for her."
Mehrotra, who has a background in political management and fundraising, tested the concept on other children and found them equally enthusiastic. Despite its high-tech wrappings, the concept appeals to basic human nature, she said.
"We often think that these social networking technologies are forcing behaviors that are weird or technology-driven. But it turns out it's just how human beings interact. We create. We want to share it. And when we see what somebody else has done, we want to imitate it."
TestToob was incorporated in October, and its founder "just started preaching it to anybody who would listen. And people would get excited," Mehrotra said. She soon found financial backing from an investor and began developing the business plan and the software the operation would need.
She tapped her husband, Rishab Mehrotra, to serve as president of the new company. He is also president of Louisville-based SHPS, an independent provider of health-management and benefits-administration services.
In one of its first real-life tests, TestToob took part in the Junior Achievement of Kentuckiana summer Bizcamp. Each day, camp students conducted and recorded a science experiment and posted the videos to TestToob's Web site.
"The kids were just fascinated by it," said Debra Hoffer, president of Junior Achievement of Kentuckiana."I think the more that we can put kids directly in touch with scientific experimentation, the more we're going to pique their interest in science as a career."
TestToob was also in use recently at Assumption High School, where chemistry and physics teacher Dan Dykstra's students recorded an assortment of short chemistry demonstrations.
"A great way to engage them in doing science is to take advantage of technologies that they're already using," Dykstra said. The videos from the site will also be handy for reviews when students miss class, he said.
"I was excited," senior Megan Fleming, 17, said after the videos were recorded. "It was something really different."
Vik Chadra, director of the Louisville Innovation and Commercialization Center, said he likes the business potential for TestToob and appreciates its mission.
"Learning should be fun," Chadra said, recalling when he and friends got together as boys to work with microscopes and other scientific tools. "We had a blast," he said. "We just loved doing this kind of thing. To us, this was play."
The TestToob approach, Chadra said, "could essentially change the way people learn, make it much more fun and engaging."
Visit www.testtoob.com to get involved.