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Bamboo Math on an Alexa-enabled device screen. (Bamboo Learning Image)

Seattle education startup Bamboo Learning is previewing its second Alexa skill at the same time it’s announcing an investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund.

Bamboo Math will be the next interactive voice product from Bamboo Learning, founded by former long-time Amazon executive Ian Freed. Bamboo Math is designed to support math practice and instruction, ranging from simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems up to higher-level questions that the company expects many adults may have difficulty answering. Both number and word problems are part of Bamboo Math’s questioning.

Students can adjust the difficulty by saying “easier” or “harder,” and switch to other types of problems by saying “addition,” “subtraction,” “multiplication,” or “division.”

Like the startup’s earlier Bamboo Music music theory skill, the math skill automatically shifts students to a higher level once it appears they have mastered easier challenges.

Bridget, age 7, works on Bamboo Math subtraction. (Bamboo Learning Photo)

But unlike Bamboo Music, the new program is visual as well as voice-enabled, working on screen-based Alexa devices such as Echo Show, Fire tablets, and Fire TV. For families with those devices, Bamboo Math displays images of animals and objects to help illustrate the problem. The company describes the product as “voice-first,” since it works on audio-only Alexa products, but has “enhanced visual features” for devices with screens.

“Research shows that instructional materials which incorporate both auditory and visual content help students learn more quickly while better retaining the material,” said Irina Fine, Bamboo Learning’s chief operating officer and senior vice president of content, in a statement. “Using Amazon’s new Alexa Presentation Language and Alexa-enabled devices, Bamboo Math is a unique voice-first education tool that combines audio and visual elements to help students deepen their understanding and knowledge of mathematics.”

Bamboo Math, which is free, will be released on Oct. 11, and can be activated with the command, “Alexa, enable Bamboo Math.” A video demo is available now.

At the same time as announcing Bamboo Math, Bamboo Learning announced an investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund. Freed told GeekWire they’re not disclosing the size of the Alexa Fund investment nor the amount of the startup’s overall funding.

But Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund, said in an accompanying statement that Bamboo Learning embodies the Fund’s vision of finding, “compelling companies for its portfolio that demonstrate how voice technology can improve everyday life … we’re excited to support them as they build more educational skills for Alexa customers.”

In June, Freed — who once headed Amazon’s Echo business — launched Bamboo Learning with the interactive Bamboo Music skill. Co-founder Fine is a 30-year veteran of elementary education curriculum development and teaching.

Fine told GeekWire that after music, math was a logical second skill for the company to create. “Math is critical to a well-rounded education, and is a regular part of students’ lives, with most students needing to practice math daily,” she said.

But the lure of word problems, too, had appeal. “They are important both for understanding mathematics more deeply, and for developing problem-solving skills,” she said, noting that Bamboo Math has more than six thousand different word problems.

An example of a word problem for those who have been out of school for many multiples of Alexa’s three-year lifetime: Four frogs crossed a bridge. Five times as many foxes followed them. How many foxes crossed the bridge?

Currently, Freed says, all features of Bamboo Math and Bamboo Music are free for all customers. “Our immediate focus is on building a large, enthusiastic customer base,” he said. “If we do a great job at that, we will have several different options for building a business model given that consumers have historically demonstrated a willingness to pay for high quality education content and applications. Additionally, Amazon’s Alexa developer tools make it easy to implement different business models when the time is right.”

Amazon also announced two other Alexa Fund investments into early stage startups on Thursday, in addition to Bamboo Learning: Endel, which generates “personalized sound environments” for focus, relaxation, and sleep, and Aiva, a voice-powered healthcare assistant for users and their caregivers.

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