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Success Story out of the ED/IES SBIR Program:
Zoo U

Screen shot of Zoo U products

Project Title: Zoo U: An Interactive Social Tutoring System to Improve and Measure Social Goals for Students Related to Academic and Other School Related Outcomes

Related ED/IES SBIR Awards:
2010 Phase I, $99,992; 2011 Phase II, $849,989

Key Information:
Small Business: 3C Institute for Social Development
Address: 4364 S. Alston Avenue Suite 300 Durham, NC 27713
Video Demo:
Contact: Melissa Derosier;

Zoo U is a web-based, social skills learning game for students in grades 2 to 4. Students play Zoo U in a simulated school environment to learn social and emotional skills through common scenarios like joining games at recess and working with a partner. Scenes at the beginning of the game determine a baseline for how students are doing with six skills: impulse control, emotion regulation, empathy, communication, cooperation, and social initiation. Students then play up to 30 scenarios to improve and reinforce learning each skills. After students complete a scene, Principal Wild, the quirky but helpful school administrator, provides constructive feedback on their choices. Educators track student progress in an online dashboard. Student data can is available individually in PDFs or in a spreadsheet for group data.

Research and Development
To create Zoo U, the team first developed a software engine for an intelligent social tutoring system, which allowed them to evaluate social skills using gameplay. They then built evidence-based social problem-solving scenes in several stages. First, the team defined what competencies to assess and the real-world behaviors that would provide evidence for these competencies. Next, the team developed in-game tasks that were research-proven to indicate these competencies and behaviors. After initial prototypes were created, the team conducted usability tests with school personnel (teachers, counselors and administrators) and with grade 3 and 4 students, during which research staff observed the children and recorded their behavior and comments as they navigated the scenes.

Researchers investigated the promise of Zoo U to increase social and emotional learning with 47 children aged 7-11, while wait-listed students constituted a control group. Study participants were recruited nationally via parenting and educational listservs and social media sites. Parents completed an eligibility questionnaire that included a demographic survey and the parent rating scales of the Behavior Assessment System for Children, Second Edition (BASC-2; Reynolds and Kamphaus, 2004.) Students in the treatment group had statistically significant improvement in impulse control, social initiation, and emotion regulation from pre-intervention to post-intervention. The wait-list control did not improve significantly in any of the six core social skills. To validate the scoring algorithms for Zoo U, 3C conducted iterative field tests with a total of 526 students 3rd and 4th graders in 27 classrooms across 12 states. Student performance on Zoo U was related in meaningful and expected ways to the independent teacher reports of social, behavioral, and academic adjustment at school. Scoring algorithms continue to be refined and integrated into the software.

Centervention was founded in 2015 as a spin out of 3C Institute to commercialize Zoo U and other online programs that use gameplay to improve behavior and social and emotional skills for students in elementary and middle school. Educators can purchase subscriptions that offer access to all Centervention programs or individual licenses for each program. In 2018, Centervention developed Zoo Academy, a game-based behavior and social skills assessment for K-1, with a grant from the National Science Foundation. As of 2020, 40,000 students have played Zoo U, and Zoo U and other Centervention programs are used in over 10,000 schools in the United States including districts in Washington, North Carolina, California, Georgia, and Florida, and in several countries.

Ongoing Efficacy Research

  • In 2018, RTI International was awarded a 5-year grant by the Institute of Education Sciences' Research Program in Social and Behavioral Context for Academic Learning to evaluate the efficacy of the Zoo U intervention.

Peer Reviewed Publications Resulting from this Project

Industry Awards for Innovation

  • Finalist - 2017 CASEL Design Award Challenge