Start-up of the Week: Cog & Axle

22 Aug 2016

Colm Ó hAnluain, founder of Cog & Axle

This week’s start-up in the spotlight is Cog & Axle, the company building a badly needed science, engineering and maths teaching resource cleverly devised by a primary school teacher.

Cog & Axle is the Irish company behind the design and manufacture of the Lévó. This wooden teaching resource uses levers, inclined planes, wheels, axles and pulleys to teach students the science behind simple machines, along with the associated mathematics and vocabulary.

Using the Lévó in conjunction with the storybook Henry’s Piano, young students from five to 15 years old can learn through the challenge of delivering Henry’s new piano to his house.

Future Human

To facilitate tearchers as well as students, Cog & Axle also provides a comprehensive illustrated 200-page teacher’s manual with lesson plans, activities and investigations. Lessons are laid out so that each year-level builds on previous experience, going from simple concrete activities to more abstract theories involving physics and mathematics.

“It is written with the non-specialist teacher in mind,” assures Cog & Axle founder Colm Ó hAnluain.

Inspirefest 2017

The lesson is such that pupils work co-operatively in groups using the scientific method and make calculations using formulas in a way that is meaningful to them. The goal is that they will acquire the relevant vocabulary to describe what they observe and record, in a structured and age-appropriate way.

“This guided learning and innovative approach to science is interactive, practical and enjoyable,” said Ó hAnluain.

Teaching the teachers

The Lévó and Henry’s Piano are aimed at primary and junior secondary school educators who wish to improve the learning and teaching of science and mathematics. “Science clubs and after-school clubs would also benefit from this,” said Ó hAnluain. “The product is suitable for schools worldwide as, thankfully, pulleys and levers work as well in Borrisokane as they do in Bolivia.”

‘The product is suitable for schools worldwide as, thankfully, pulleys and levers work as well in Borrisokane as they do in Bolivia’

The Cog & Axle founder understands the needs of teachers. After all, he is one.

Ó hAnluain’s extensive teaching experience extends over 20 years, encompassing a wide variety of roles in Ireland and abroad. He has taught in small rural schools and large urban schools; in Gaelscoileanna and a multilingual and multicultural school in Belgium; from infants all the way up to sixth class. He even teaches teachers.

“I spent five years working with the Primary Curriculum Support Programme designing and delivering in-service (CPD) courses for the revised primary school curriculum in the areas of music, geography and science,” he said. “I’ve designed and delivered courses for teachers through the Education Centre network in Ireland in the areas of ICT and science, and school leadership.”

Learning in context

For Ó hAnluain, exploring, making and figuring things out are central to learning. “I have always been interested in making things from a young age,” he said. “I always enjoyed making things from wood and card, anything I could get my hands on.”

No surprise, then, that when he couldn’t find a suitable hands-on resource to teach simple machines, he decided to design it himself.

“There are, of course, large-scale, commercially available products, which contain hundreds, if not thousands of small, easily lost pieces that are a nightmare to manage in a classroom situation. These sets are also very expensive,” he explained.

“The other difficulty with these sets is linking with the curriculum. Using the brightly coloured bricks and plastic pulleys [available] jarred with the image of the Egyptians hauling 30-ton blocks to build their pyramids.”

Ó hAnluain needed something designed with a teacher and a class of 30 pupils in mind. It had to be intuitive, easily stored, robust, suitable for group work and adapted to a real classroom and school furniture. Finally – the icing on the cake – he wanted it to be applicable across the curriculum for mathematics, science and literacy.

He tackled this challenge by first developing a story. “I needed to create a context for the simple machines. I used make up stories for the children to give purpose to the machines – why were they using them.”

And so – after numerous attempts and spectacular failures – came the story of Henry and his piano, a big cumbersome object that children can understand.

The birth of Cog & Axle

The Lévó was brought to life with the help of the WeCreate workshop in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary. The design was created with V Carve software and executed using a CNC router (a computer-controlled cutting machine) and laser cutter.

“Without access to this equipment it would not be possible to manufacture the Lévó,” Ó hAnluain declared.

The greatest difficulty, he added, was figuring out how to transform a resource designed for use in his own classroom into a marketable product.

“I had no background in manufacturing, sales, marketing or business in general,” he confessed. This meant weekends and evenings spent conducting research and finance procured from his personal savings.

“Contacting ‘real’ suppliers and businesses and ordering large quantities of materials was a challenge. So, in essence, the greatest challenge was convincing me that I too was a real business.”

‘In essence, the greatest challenge was convincing me that I too was a real business’

However, Ó hAnluain’s entrepreneurial journey became easier once he discovered the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) network. “I wasn’t the first, nor will I be the last to put a product in a box. The help, support and advice from Tipperary LEO is fantastic. No question is too much trouble for them to answer,” he said.

The first-time founder has also found established companies “really helpful with time, advice and ideas”.

Cog & Axle Lévó and Henry's Piano

Cog & Axle’s Lévó tool and ‘Henry’s Piano’ storybook

Cause for concern in the curriculum

Cog & Axle’s combined Lévó tool and storybook tackles an area of the curriculum Ó hAnluain said is a challenge for educators. “Forces, simple machines and the associated maths was causing difficulties for many teachers. The resources were not there.”

Indeed, a 2008 report from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment identified the teaching of forces as a “cause for concern”.

“It appears that few pupils are engaging with the strand unit [of forces] beyond carrying out floating and sinking investigations. Thus, learning about machines, levers, pulleys, structures and motion would be very limited,” the report states.

In the years since this report, Ó hAnluain believes this problem was overlooked. “Teachers need resources to teach,” he plainly put it.

Henry’s Piano and the Lévó explores simple machines, engineering and problem-solving through to applied mathematics. Ó hAnluain added that all of the activities and investigations in the teacher’s manual are linked to the content learning objectives of the primary school curriculum.

‘It’s hands-on learning at its best for the engineers of the future’

“The concepts in this book can be used to help students develop important cognitive skills. They can engage their own creativity and imaginations to make predictions about engineering methods before trying out the solutions in the book for themselves in the classroom. It’s hands-on learning at its best for the engineers of the future.”

Down to business

Cog & Axle launched as a business in May this year, and is evidently powered by the passion of its creator.

“This product – the Lévó and Henry’s Piano – brought all my hobbies and skills together,” said Ó hAnluain.

“Funnily, I was not great at maths in school nor did I study physics or engineering. I always enjoyed making and playing and figuring things out but that kind of maths and science was unfortunately not encouraged in school!”

‘I always enjoyed making and playing and figuring things out but that kind of maths and science was unfortunately not encouraged in school’

Ó hAnluain said the feedback from those who have seen the product has been incredibly positive. “Word is spreading slowly through the education world. We have shipped to Canada, Belgium, Germany and Denmark so far. The number of schools in Ireland is increasing and is in double digits now.”

In Dublin, educators, parents and makers may have encountered Ó hAnluain and his teaching toolkit at this summer’s Dublin Maker, as he certainly saw a bump in web traffic after the event.

“Lots of enquiries – now to convert them to sales!” he said, demonstrating his full conversion to entrepreneur.

“School budgets are tight but most schools realise the value and importance of science and that this product is for the whole school and can be used by all classes, integrating maths, science and literacy.”

Cog & Axle full school kit

A full school kit from Cog & Axle

Business for Cog & Axle is stable and Ó hAnluain is not looking for investment just yet. “I am using JIT (just-in-time) production and all my suppliers are local. Current demand makes this model sustainable. Until such time as this changes we will not be looking at attracting a partner.”

Ultimately, Ó hAnluain would like to see the Lévó and Henry’s Piano become the go-to resource in all educational establishments, as ubiquitous as Unifix Cubes or Cuisenaire Rods to learn and explore simple machines.

As a full-time primary-school teacher, his biggest challenge as an entrepreneur is time. “Time and energy [are] so much more important than finance,” he said. Though he seems to believe any defecits can be made up “once you show a particular determination and commitment”.

‘Take any opportunity to showcase your idea’

Ó hAnluain took a chance on a big idea he knew was needed. Though he was apprehensive about putting himself out there as an entrepreneur with no experience, he encourages others to take the plunge.

“Get in touch with the LEO network. Ask for feedback from everybody! Don’t become too precious about it,” he advised.

“There will be days and weeks when nothing appears to be happening. Take any opportunity to showcase your idea – there are lots of events nationwide and some may not appear to be the right event for you but all sorts of people visit events and shows. There is no right event.”

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic