The State of STEM Education in Silicon Valley

Under the warm sun shining through the San Jose City Hall Rotunda, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation convened a group of policy makers, educators, and business & community leaders to explore the “#StateOfSTEM: How to Fill Tomorrow’s Jobs.” The forum focused on advancing STEM education, to help our schools catch up to the innovation happening all around us.

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San Jose Mayor, Sam Liccardo joined two local Superintendents and Tim Ritchie, the President of The Tech, for the first panel. The educators shared their school districts’ best practices in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and successful programs at their schools. The highlight from their comments was the idea of creating “city-wide learning labs,” that integrate schools, community-based organizations, parents and connected citizens. This notion of collective impact is not new and has shown early signs of success in other parts of the country.

The second panel included John York, Chairman/Co-owner, San Francisco 49ers, who is also the key supporter behind the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute. Through launching Embark Labs I’ve had the pleasure of working directly with that amazing team and students, helping them design a robust computer science program focused on creative problem solving through authentic projects.

Personally, I’ve taken a break from attending education events such as this, which often bring together very passionate and well-meaning citizens, yet rarely give audience members a chance to hear from educators and students directly. However, I was pleased to hear the conversations go beyond just STEM topics, to include structural reform issues such as teacher compensation, instructional time, credentialing challenges and much more.

 

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Mike Kirst, President of California State Board of Education, recapped the event perfectly by saying,

“the State of STEM is in transition.”

As a passionate parent and concerned citizen, I’m sure many of you will agree with me that we wish those transitions were happening more quickly and reaching more students. However, the optimist in me is hopeful that our collective efforts are making a difference for students in our communities.

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Connecting Silicon Valley and the Ivory Tower

Since 2005 Columbia University’s Teachers College has been quietly developing their EdLab which internally incubates some promising ideas and in their words, “engages in work that has the potential to contribute to the improvement of educational institutions today and the broader evolution and reconfiguration of future educational services.”

One of their projects that recently caught my attention is ResearchBroker, a tool to connect startups to skilled researchers who are passionate about validating new ideas in industry. While these efforts can be applied to multiple verticals, I think the edtech implications are extremely exciting. (Perhaps because I’m always drawn to efforts that bring together edtech founders with education practitioners in hopes that this exchange will lead to better product development and implementation.) In case you missed it, EdSurge just wrote their own profile on the product and team.

I recently spoke with Megha Agarwala and Janice Joo, Innovation Fellows at EdLab who created this tool, to learn more about their progress & vision and help engage users in the Bay Area.

What problem is ResearchBroker trying to address?

A number of educational startups are looking for researchers who can help validate product ideas and determine the effectiveness of their product for different users, including instructors, students and program administrators. The startups need researchers to identify metrics to track and collect data, design and conduct studies, analyze data and also potentially publish the results within their community.  

On the other side are Doctoral and Masters degree researchers who are looking for real-world projects where they can gain valuable experience collecting and analyzing data and also use that experience towards their academic pursuits. ResearchBroker is a free platform that has been designed to connect these two parties. Instead of waiting for introductions, startups can directly connect with researchers by creating their research projects on ResearchBroker.

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What has been the response from early users? What are you looking for from your next set of users?

So far, users on ResearchBroker are educational startups in New York City and researchers at Teachers College Columbia University. Startups have shown a commitment to using the ResearchBroker platform to define their projects and bring a researcher onto their team. EdLab has been offering guidance to startups on how to define their research questions, and will create learning resources to help startups leverage existing research.
Because EdLab is uniquely positioned within Teachers College, we have been able to plug startups into a network of researchers. We were able to connect the founders of the language learning platform, Instreamia to a researcher and they are already discussing their research direction.
 
Moving forward, we would like to expand beyond the New York City tri-state area to include Silicon Valley educational startups and researchers at schools beyond Teachers College.  We would also like to organize events to bring researchers, startups, teachers and learners together to brainstorm and solve research problems and share their work.

How can people learn more or share feedback?

Please feel free to contact us directly at researchbroker@tc.columbia.edu if you have any further questions.

Who will Transform Education?

Diane Ravitch, education historian and professor at NYU, recently posted a question to her twitter followers that lead to a pretty heated back and forth with Justin Hamilton, spokesperson for the Dept of Education, and several other followers.

While I am a believer that healthy debate can be very constructive, pushing the thinking and assumptions of both sides, I find this question really perpetuates this gap between educators and education startups. Ravitch’s view over simplifies the classification of an entrepreneur as someone working outside the school system in a for-profit organization with an emphasis on making money.  I think that narrowly defining entrepreneurship in this way not only undermines all the entrepreneurial work happening within the school system, at the classroom and district level, but also disregards non-profit startups that are fully focused on improving education outcomes for all students. And what about creative efforts from parents and students themselves, who often go above and beyond to stretch limited resources and make something out of nothing. Isn’t that form of alchemy the essence of entrepreneurship?

Being a Stanford Ed School Alum, I am familiar with much of Ravitch’s work and often agree with her thinking around focusing on educators and improving the system from within. However, as someone working on finding ways to bridge these two communities and shine a spotlight on teacherpreneurs, I was really disappointed to see this type of divisive conversation. Broad education reform requires a collective effort and I think we should include as many people in this movement as possible. It takes a village, right?

So, who will transform education? All of us.

Is there Really A Movement?

Howard Fuller was absolutely amazing as the keynote speaker at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit this past Wed, appropriately kicking off the event asking everyone to think about why they are here, doing this work, and what role they can and will play. He passionately expressed the sense of urgency we need to have in solving the challenges of our current education system and echoed a similar message from Don Shalvey, that I wrote in a previous post, that there is room for everyone to play a meaningful role in improving education outcomes for all students.

Many of his comments were twitter-worthy (and the audience did an impressive job keeping the tweet stream (#nsvfsummit) flowing all day) but this was by far my favorite.

“We think we are all awesome. We are not all awesome. Most of us are regular people. We have to create systems where regular people can have awesome results.”

For me, this captured the essence of the entire event. NSVF has been supporting some of the top edupreneurs since 1998, who span from school builders to tool builders and everything in between, who are working to create ways in which regular citizens can make a real impact on teaching and learning.

The title of this post borrows from that of the opening session itself, questioning whether the current education reform movement is moving fast enough. I wonder if outside our bubble of edtech trends and the charter reform, is there enough community engagement and energy to even classify this as a movement? I would love to see what happened to the environmental movement take shape in the education world, where regular citizens not only have awareness of the problem but have actionable ways in which they can make a difference. Everyone recycles and that’s awesome. Can we get everyone to volunteer at their local school or contribute to educating all our children in other every-day ways?

Fuller simply states that in order to build a movement, we must engage people on a grassroots level. I whole-heartedly agree, which is why I’ve been organizing a growing community of educators who are interested in helping build the edtech movement through my Teacher Tech Talk events. (The next one is coming up on Wed, May 30th.)

The rest of the day was equally amazing, full of great speakers and opportunities to connect with fellow edupreneurs, old and new. It would be impossible to capture everything here, so keeping with their efforts to foster this community, NSVF will post all the sessions online. (A few of the sessions are already live on NBC News Education Nation.)

If you only have time to watch one session, skip straight to the closing conversation between Rahm Emanuel and Laurene Powell Jobs. Clearly a seasoned politician, he had an established message to convey, however, his passion for fixing the broken education system in Chicago was pouring off the stage.

“We’re not for reform, we’re for results. As reformers, we’re for education excellence, not educational reform. I think we confuse the means with the ends.”

It was such a powerful way to close the day and bring the conversation back to the focus of all our efforts, and events like the summit. The focus should not be reforming “the system,” or unions, or teaching training programs, etc… But rather engaging regular citizens in building a grassroots movement that optimizes for educational excellence for all students. If we could do that, then maybe we are all awesome.

Outrageous to Ambitious

I’m always so impressed by the quality of the fully student organized Stanford GSB Education Symposium and last night’s event was no exception. I was honored to co-lead a roundtable discussion on how to apply design thinking principles to help empower global learners, specifically around re-thinking distribution models for digital content.  This is directly related to the course I am contributing to through the Stanford Ed School this spring, Ed333B: Envisioning the Future of Learning, and it was so beneficial for me to practice some of my instructional approaches with this attentive and energetic audience.

The roundtables were followed by some additional networking and a lovely dinner. The highlight of the evening was the charming and inspiring keynote address from Don Shalvey, Founder of Aspire Public Schools who is currently Director of US Ed Programs for the Gates Foundation. As the godfather of the charter school movement, he shared some entertaining stories about his first time teaching kindergarten and how his teaching craft has evolved over time, with a focus on ‘doing the common thing uncommonly well.’ While I’m not particularly bullish on charter schools as the silver bullet for ed reform, what was most fascinating is his perspective on the ~20 year old charter school movement itself and his key message that what used to be seen as outrageous is now viewed as ambitious. What was previously dismissed as impossible is actually now attainable, once you apply enough energy and investment. While charters are still such a small percentage of schools (~5-7%) they play the important role as a testing ground for piloting programs and iterating before integrating broadly into traditional schools. The innovative and fast-paced culture of some charter schools allow them to experiment with tools and programs that larger, and often more bureaucratic districts, struggle with. The most inspiring part of his address was his call to action for everyone in the room to remember that ‘education is a broad field and there is room and need for talent from all types of backgrounds.’

In a space that is often dominated by negative rhetoric about how the system is failing and in crisis mode, Dean Steele’s opening remarks and Dr. Shalvey’s keynote were refreshingly optimistic and I hope everyone else left with the same reinvigorating feeling that I did!

Teacher Tech Talk

During my exploration deeper into the world of edtech, meeting with countless entrepreneurs & investors and attending numerous conferences & events, I feel a very important perspective is missing from this growing movement… the voice and participation of educators. Can we really redesign and distribute new innovations in teaching and learning without active involvement from the teacher community? I’ve been to several edtech meetups, Startup Weekend EDU events and conferences and it’s rare to find attendees that are actually current teachers, working directly with students and trying out the new tools that seem to pop up weekly.

So, what can we do about that? Last night I hosted the first Teacher Tech Talk event to help identify and build a community of educators that are interested in playing a more vocal and active role  in this growing edtech movement. It’s been hard to miss all the buzz around the ‘edtech’ world lately, however, people who have been thinking about ed reform for a while recognize that technology is merely a tool and the larger disruptions and improvements to current teaching and learning practices depend on when/how those tools are used, which is  largely driven by educators.

My goal for this community is to collectively figure out how best to bridge the educator and education startup worlds. How can we get more perspective from what is happening in classrooms and schools into the product development process of startups, rather than when it’s time to find beta testers or product evangelists? The group consisted of current and former educators, entrepreneurs, school/district tech leads and even an investor. The diversity of perspectives lead to a very insightful discussion session, and as this community grows I imagine it will attract more entrepreneurs and investors, however, I’m extremely focused on keeping the content and conversation centered on educators.

After some networking, we settled into a brainstorming and discussion session around what the educators think would make their teaching lives easier. The responses ranged from predictable need for more time, access to devices, actionable data to more collective impact approaches, engaging parents, inter/intra district collaboration and thinking how to bring more relevancy and real-world application to the current standards-based curriculum. Greg Klein was our first guest speaker, invited to share his perspective as a former principal in Oakland and current teacher, leading the blended learning initiatives at Downtown College Prep. He shared an in-depth look into the tools (Khan Academy, Manga High and long list of others) and process he’s piloting at DCP and stay tuned for a follow-up post that goes into more detail. Brett Kopf, co-founder of Remind101, then shared his experience incubating his startup through Imaginek12 and speaking with hundreds of teachers before starting to build his product that aims to power communication between teachers, parents and students.

This pilot event was a success and surfaced some extremely useful feedback on how to grow and shape this community going forward. Look out for an invite to next month’s event and if you’re interested in getting involved in anyway, let me know. As with most startups, I’m figuring this out as I go and can use all the feedback I can get!

Connecting Stanford Community

I always enjoy going back to the Stanford School of Ed (SUSE) and this afternoon I found myself chatting with fellow alumni in the CERAS Lobby as part of our kick-off event for SUSE Alumni Community Connect. The goal of this initiative is to help build community among SUSE Alumni across the world, beginning with virtual connections in the Facebook group which we hope will foster offline interactions around the Bay Area and beyond. Tonight’s event was made more special by hearing directly from the new SUSE Dean, Claude Steele on his views of the current education environment and how SUSE can contribute to the modern ed reform movement. I look forward to seeing how this community grows and deepens over the coming months and years. If you’re a SUSE Alum, please join the FB group and the conversation.