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This year marks 40 years of serving STEM educators for Vernier Software & Technology—a true milestone, to say the least. The company now serves a countless number of educators and students around the world, has more than 100 employees, and partners with leading organizations in STEM education. Yet, Dave and Christine Vernier never imagined the company would become what it is today when it all started back in the summer of 1981.
Dave: I was lucky to be teaching physics in Hillsboro, Oregon, at the time when computers became available to normal people. There have been computers since World War II, but only banks and the Defense Department could afford them. But in the late ’70s, it started to be true that you could get a computer for a school or for a house—they weren’t cheap, but you could get one.
And then someone donated a programmable calculator at the school where I was teaching. I started writing programs, and it was immediately obvious that these programs created a huge change to my class, and really, really helped my teaching. It made my teaching much, much easier.
I started writing programs, and it was immediately obvious that these programs created a huge change to my class, and really, really helped my teaching.
By the time 1981 came along, Christine and I were both working full time—I’m teaching, she’s working in a law office. The Oregon economy was in bad shape at the time and I had trouble getting a summer job, so I said, “Well, heck with this. If I can’t get a decent job in the summer, I’m just going to spend the summer working on these programs that I have been writing.”
By then I had an Apple® II, so I spent the next couple of months working on those computer programs, and then the idea was, “The worst that can happen is I spend the summer working on these programs and I’ll have better ones for my kids, and then, heck, we could even try selling a few of them.”
Christine: So, we spent $35 to put an ad in the American Association of Physics Teachers journal about these programs, which were available on a diskette or cassette for $18. And, lo and behold, some people bought them.
We figured, “Well, OK, this is fine. This will be a nice little part-time job for David to write programs and sell them.”
That first year we probably gave away more than we sold because we decided we should send some out for review and just give some out to teachers. We wanted people to just play with them and try them out. So, that was the beginning of Vernier Software—it was just called Vernier Software at the time, no “Technology” at the end!
Dave: We sold a few, and that was pleasant and kind of exciting. But, of course, we’re both working our jobs, so I would work on programs on the weekends, and we would process a few orders together in the evenings. And that went on for, I think, two years or so.
We gradually sold a bit more, but it finally came to the point where we were saying, “You know, this doesn’t make sense because we act like we’re a company, and yet if you call to place an order no one answers the phone. How tacky is that?” So, we decided one of us needed to be home.
Christine: We actually got a pretty big order around that time from Scholastic and we said, “You know, hey, we’re starting to sell stuff. So I’ll stay home and answer the phone and take care of orders.”
And I did that. And it worked for, what?
Dave: I think a couple years.
Christine: Then we said, “You know, things are really busy. We need to develop more programs.” So David took a leave of absence from teaching, and then we were both working at the company—him full-time and me part-time. I also worked in the accounting department at Nike to help keep us afloat.
We, you know, continued to just plug away at this.
Dave: But, we finally realized we needed to have some help, and so we hired Pat Ekman, whose daughter actually works at Vernier today. She was our first employee in our house and helped us process orders.
Christine: And she answered the phone when we went off to conferences because . . .
Dave: We went to a lot of conferences!
Christine: We had to be ‘the conference people.’ We would just pack our computer up, put it in a box, and drag it on the airplane with us.
Dave: Not just an Apple II computer—a monitor too. Think about taking a desktop computer with a monitor with you on a plane!
Christine: We wanted to show people our programs and that’s what it took. But the big ‘aha’ moment was really at the point when we started hiring people and especially expensive people like software developers and engineers like John Wheeler, who’s now our CEO.
But the big ‘aha’ moment was really at the point when we started hiring people and especially expensive people like software developers and engineers like John Wheeler, who’s now our CEO.
So, really, in ’93 was the time where we said, “Well, I guess we’re going to be a real company, and we’re going to need real engineers and real software developers.” David couldn’t do it all and I couldn’t do it all in the front office either, so that’s when we started hiring more and more people.
And at the same time, Texas Instruments came to us with their new interface called CBL (Calculator-Based Laboratory) and wanted to partner with us, which meant a huge increase in sales. So, this time was really pivotal for us.
David wrote a program called Precision Timer. It was a program to time moving objects. But, in order to measure that, you needed a photogate, and we didn’t develop hardware. What we did was we put together a parts list. You’d go to RadioShack and buy these parts. Physics teachers just loved that because they were great at soldering and that worked out great until…
Dave: People would always call and say, “Hey, I’m not that good at soldering and stuff.” I remember one guy from Wyoming called, and he said, “Why can’t you give me those parts?” I said, “Well, you can go to RadioShack.” And he says, “Mister, do you know how far it is to the nearest RadioShack?” Because, you know, 100 miles or something in Wyoming. So he kind of talked me into putting together… a kit of sorts. We didn’t build the thing, but we made what we called a parts kit. It was just a bag, and we would go to RadioShack and buy all the parts, stick ’em in the bag, and then we’d sell ’em.
Christine: And we realized, “Hey, where we’re gonna make a real impact is by offering these kits as assembled items.”
Over the following years, the once software-only company added sensors—starting with a photogate—to its offerings because as Dave states, “If we could make a computer take the data while students are working on something else, and then graph the data as it’s happening or instantly afterwards, students will start making the connection with the graph and what it really means.”
Now, decades later, Vernier Software & Technology provides a wide variety of data-collection devices, software programs, apps, and accompanying lab books available to support educators in the classroom and laboratory and to help students continue to make those meaningful scientific connections.
Learn more about the Vernier story.
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