By Tracy Shevlin | Photos by Rob Jinks
According to Livescience.com, “STEM [education]is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.” It is an initiative for the President and the U.S. Department of Education, along with state and local schools.
STEM is all of those things, but it is also a passion for teachers and business associates, Catherine Swanwick and Jon Nardolilli, co-owners and creators of Catlilli Games. Together they have developed board games for ages four and up that reinforce STEM learning objectives.
PWL: How did you come up with the concept for Catlilli Games?
Swanwick: Jon and I come at this from different backgrounds, but both of us have a love of teaching. My educational and professional background is scientific. I have a PhD in neuroscience and spent years doing research in that field. Jon’s background is in engineering. We both migrated into education, and we met when we were both teaching STEM enrichment classes. As we talked about classroom strategies, we learned that we were both using games as teaching tools. We found that children can learn STEM concepts through the games and have fun at the same time. After talking this through, we started Catlilli Games. Jon is the creative one and develops the games, whereas I handle the business operations. Our company name, Catlilli Games, is a combination of our names.
Jon now teaches middle school math at the Reston branch of School for Tomorrow, an independent school centered on project-based learning. I teach occasionally as a long-term sub for high schools in the Fauquier County Public School system. We both feel that keeping our contact with the classroom is vital for understanding our customers and developing innovative STEM educational games.
PWL: Can you tell us more about the games themselves?
Swanwick: Since joining forces, we have developed five games, three of which are for ages four and up and two for upper elementary to high school age groups. They are priced under $20.
Each of our games uses fun mechanics to make kids learn without realizing it. Atomic Adventures is a chemistry matching/memory game. Cycles is a strategy card game based on life and earth sciences. Crazy Cats is a genetics dice game incorporating art. Will it [Blank]? is an engineering party game based on materials testing, and Insect Intersection is a strategy card/dice game that teaches principles of evolution.
PWL: It’s been a busy year for you with the start-up of your business. How have you overcome the challenges of launching this new business while both of you are teaching?
Swanwick: We approached the Mason Enterprise Center (MEC) in Warrenton for some initial advice. They connected us with the Virginia Serious Game Institute (VSGI) at George Mason University. We applied and interviewed with VSGI and explained our games to them. They accepted us and have provided a tremendous amount of business mentorship to us, including helping us write business plans, providing networking support and providing us office space located within the VSGI at the Science and Technology Campus of George Mason.
PWL: What were your priorities besides game development?
Swanwick: Our biggest priorities besides product development have been related to promoting Catlilli Games and looking for investors to help us reach the next level. We entered two different contests this past year that help promote new businesses. The Washington Post co-sponsored a contest with start-up incubator company, 1776. The contest was open to millennials who have businesses beyond the initial stages of development. We had to prepare a one-minute pitch for a panel composed of business leaders and policy and marketing experts. Catlilligames made it to the top ten in that contest out of a nationwide pool of 200 applicants. We learned a lot, and we were happy to have participated in it.
We also entered a contest open to Duke University Alumni (which I am an alumna) and have made it to Round 2. This contest was different. We were challenged to raise money via social media through an Indiegogo campaign.
PWL: How are you marketing Catlilli Games?
Swanwick: All of our marketing has been event-based thus far. We have participated in a variety of events, such as the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum (Winchester), the Children’s Science Center of Northern Virginia (Fair Oaks Mall) and other educational fairs, including the Haymarket STEM Expo (Haymarket). At each event, we set up our games and let kids experience the hands-on fun. These events provide great word of mouth referrals and community exposure.
Parents and educators can see how much fun the kids have while playing the games. We sell games at these events, but people can also buy them online through our webpage. This May we have been selected as a vendor at the Flower Mart at the National Cathedral, their annual spring family festival, which will be held on the cathedral grounds May 6 and 7.
PWL: What are your goals for Catlilli Games as you look to the future?
Swanwick: We are working to create a national brand identity. We hope to do this by developing apps that reinforce our name recognition. Board games remain our priority, but we do feel the apps will reinforce the board game business.
We are also working to develop partnerships with other educational organizations, including school systems, associations and companies. For example, we hope that companies like Scholastic or PBS Kids will partner with us by providing a link to our site or will provide us another avenue for marketing. Our goal is to reach as many classrooms and students as possible.
Additional information on Catherine Swanwick, Jon Nardolilli and Catlilli Games can be found on their website, catlilli.com.
Tracy Shevlin ([email protected]) is a native Virginian and long-time Manassas area resident. She is a graduate of George Mason University where she is also an office manager.