Dave Jackson

When children crawl through the artificial caves that Dave Jackson has created, they’re able to have a hands-on learning experience in both science and how to safely explore caves.

“I really like to see the lightbulbs going on in children’s heads,” Jackson said. “My hope is that maybe some percentage of the kids who experience our caves will go on to have more fulfilling lives, better educations and better outcomes in their lives in some way because of our programming.”

Jackson is the inventor of CaveSim, life-sized artificial caves that can be crawled through by children and adults. The caves contain electronic sensors that provide feedback on a user’s caving skills.

CaveSim offers its caves in a couple of different formats. The company creates some permanent cave exhibits inside buildings. For example, at the CityROCK indoor climbing gym, CaveSim designed an underground cave system that can be explored.

Another format is the company’s mobile caves. CaveSim has caves that, when transported on large trailers, travel the country and are used primarily as educational opportunities for children.

“The first one we built has been to 18 states and has been used by well over 25,000 people,” Jackson said.

Jackson, 39, is a New York native who studied electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He started caving while in college and continued the hobby after moving to Colorado Springs in 2007. 

Shortly after moving to Colorado, Jackson got involved in a cave rescue training organization and saw a need for better training opportunities. Hence, the CaveSim concept was born.

When he first started CaveSim, Jackson also worked for Keysight Technologies. About 18 months ago, he decided to focus solely on CaveSim and is hoping to bring his programming to more Colorado Springs schools.

“We tend to do a lot of programming in other states. Last year, about half of our programs were in Texas. We would love to do more local programming,” Jackson said. “Right now is a hard time for teachers and we’re here to help them out with these online programs. After COVID, we’d love to bring the cave to their schools.”

Jackson spoke with the Business Journal about CaveSim, its development and educational programming. To learn more, visit cavesim.com.

How did you come up with CaveSim?

After I moved to Colorado Springs, I got involved with an organization called the Colorado Cave Rescue Network. This is an informal group that does cave trainings every once in a while. When my wife and I moved here, we started getting into the local caving community. In 2008, we had our first class in Glenwood Springs at Glenwood Caverns. The training course had two parts; there was an aboveground part and an underground part in a real cave. So, for the aboveground part they had these picnic tables set up that were supposed to be a cave. There was flagging tape hanging down to replicate stalactites, and I noticed people were just brushing them out of the way. They were threading people through this structure. There were people on the outside holding these picnic tables up, and people just weren’t safe and they weren’t really learning because you can’t brush stalactites out of way. This group included cavers, but it also included people on search and rescue teams like firefighters and EMTs. The cavers know what to do but the agency folks don’t really know about the cave environment. On the second day, I saw people casually leaning into the cave formations. Some formations are sort of powdery, and I noticed there was powder all over the cave floor from these things that sometimes can take 1,000 years per cubic inch to grow.

It’s a long drive from Glenwood Springs back to Colorado Springs, so I had a lot of time to think. I went to MIT for electrical engineering, and I was thinking what can I do as an engineer to solve this problem. I wanted to make a cave that would give you a score, that would tell you how well you did and help you learn from your mistakes.

We were new to the cave rescue community at the time, and I thought these trainings happened all the time, but I realized they only happen about once every two years. So, I built this cool thing, and at the time my wife was a classroom teacher at Palmer High School, and I thought why don’t we use this at our schools. My wife now works at Catamount Institute, and we started to do programs there. Catamount Institute is a local school that focuses a lot on outdoor and environmental education. So, we started doing programming for them, then we started traveling to different states. We’ve worked with over 25,000 kids since then. 

What can people learn from a CaveSim experience?

When I started doing cave rescue training, one of the things I saw was that people, in this case adults, were damaging things in caves like stalactites and stalagmites. So, one thing people can learn is how to be careful in a natural environment. In this case, the natural environment happens to be a cave. We’re trying to teach people to be considerate of wild places. So, our artificial caves have stalactites, stalagmites and things like ancient cave paintings and bats. If they interact with any of these things in the wrong way, they’ll hear a beep, and they get points deducted from their score.

It’s kind of like the game Operation. We have these electronic sensors behind the wall that can tell if they interact with something the wrong way. Sometimes a recorded voice will give you lessons about the cave. At the end, you can see your score on the computer screen. People who are watching from outside the cave can see you while you’re in there. We have night vision cameras in the caves, so your friends can watch.

Another thing people can learn is … think about any of the science topics you had in school — biology, earth science, chemistry, physics. All of those subjects, we find a way to connect with our program. So if I give you the example of chemistry, it used to be the case that people would explore caves with carbide lamps and you basically had fire strapped to your head. The carbide reaction is a fascinating one. If you drip water into the carbide, it makes a flammable gas like an acetylene cutting torch. We have working carbide lamps and we demonstrate the lamps for the kids, and we can show them things about the chemical reaction. For physics, we have a 12-foot tower that’s portable. We bring it out of our mobile trailer and set it up. Kids can learn about the physics of pulleys and ropes; they can ascend the tower and rappel down and learn firsthand about these science concepts.

How has your work been impacted by COVID-19?

One thing is that we stopped doing in-person programming. We haven’t done any programs since mid-April, but we are doing a lot of online learning. We are offering live online programs, via Zoom or Google Meet, whatever platform a classroom teacher wants to use. We’ll join the meeting when students at a certain school are in class. I did one last week for a school in Eagle. I’ll do demonstrations, and they will do labs with simple materials that their teacher has gathered. Last week, for example, was all about geology. Kids were doing tests on rocks they had gathered from around the school. They were doing tests to see which rocks were from caves. They were putting vinegar on the rocks to see which ones would bubble. I will do more exciting tests with fire and things like that. So, we’ve been doing live online programming.

But some schools can’t do live online programming. Maybe they don’t have the resources or the devices or the bandwidth. So, we’ve recorded nine different lessons that we’ve posted on our website. Teachers can make a simple login and get access to that content. So, at their convenience, the kids can watch the programming.

Another way we’ve been impacted is that we’ve gotten creative with the building of our caves. We actually ramped up our building process. We were going to build one new trailer but we’re currently building two new trailers. We, unfortunately, had to let our staff go because we don’t have income right now but we’ve got some amazing people in our community who came over on their summer break to help us. One is the middle school assistant principal at Holmes Middle School and the other is an elementary PE teacher at Queen Palmer. They had an expertise in construction. They helped us out a lot for free to build these in exchange for unlimited free programming at their schools. We normally charge a fee to schools for the programming, but these guys and gals have been amazing. When we get through COVID, we’d love to do more programming at schools, especially in our local schools. We’ve even had some students who have helped out with this, almost like an apprenticeship.

What advice do you have for fellow young professionals?

I would say that the more you can learn the better. I spend a lot of time listening to people who are more knowledgeable than I am. I listen to TED Talks or things on YouTube. I try to develop relationships with mentors. When you’re starting out, you just have to realize that it’s a journey in which you have the opportunity to make yourself into more than you started out being and embrace those experiences.