“You are the expert, so we came to learn from you,” Garret Potter (MSI ’25) tells 5-year-old Max James, who has emerged from his blanket fort just in time for a usability test with Potter and fellow UX researcher Liyang Qu (MSI ’23).
Max might be young, but he is the ideal age for Everstory, an audiovisual encyclopedia that provides a way for children ages 4 to 6 — who can’t yet read — to ask questions and explore their interests.
Potter, a dual degree master’s student at the University of Michigan School of Information and Marsal Family School of Education, came up with the idea for Everstory after working as an elementary school educator and becoming a father to a now third-grader.
“Many existing curricula for early learners start narrow and slowly expand outward,” Potter says. But this narrow focus isn’t representative of how young learners perceive the world, or how they understand their place in it.
“Kindergarteners want to know how far the Earth is from the sun. How many planets are there? How many galaxies and solar systems are there? Were the dinosaurs alive before people, or at the same time? Early learners have the most amazing questions,” Potter says. “They want to know everything, and they want to know how it connects.”
Potter first conceived of Everstory in 2021. He wanted to create “a children's version of Wikipedia that would include maps, timelines and a connected learning experience.” He invited fellow graduate students at UMSI and the Marsal School to join the effort as designers and content developers, with Qu and Allison Chou (MSI ’24) taking the lead on UX design.
“What ultimately convinced me was the spark of passion in Garret's eye when he told me about Everstory when we first met in SI 623," Qu says. "I feel my skills can really help him to elevate it to the next level of what it should be. So I joined the team." The multilingual, multicultural team of volunteers has developed content for Everstory in English, Mandarin, Hindi and Punjabi.
In 2022, Potter and his team took second place in both the James A. Kelly Learning Lever Prize and the Michigan Virtual Education Technology Contest. Everstory was officially incorporated in late 2022. Funding from UMSI’s Field Innovation and Entrepreneurship Grant, which supports startup ventures, allowed Potter and Qu to take an exciting step this past summer: conducting usability testing with elementary school librarians across southeast Michigan and children ages 4 to 6.
Everstory is still in development, but Potter plans to pitch the resource to Wikimedia in coming months, using data collected during beta testing to convey its value and feasibility. Provided there is interest, he would be happy to give Everstory to an organization or company that could make it widely available to users free of charge.
In the right hands, Everstory’s influence could be as far-reaching as its content.
“My hope is that it would have the greatest impact possible, which would be that it could help prevent future wars,” Potter says. “When somebody lives in a subculture or a geographic setting, what they learn, what they believe, what they value is drastically shaped by their immediate surroundings and their immediate influences. Depending on where you grow up, people may not even have time to answer your questions.”
Using Everstory, a child born in the U.S. could learn that soccer is called football in many countries, that it is played around the globe and was played in China over 2,000 years ago. Potter believes that global context and historical context are building blocks for empathy. “For a child to have access to that sort of knowledge could change the trajectory of their life, and maybe the trajectory of larger communities or nations,” he says.
These are immense objectives, but Everstory poses the question: Why think small?