Bronze Reflections

I wrote this brief essay after winning third place in a Startup Weekend EDU at Mills College in Oakland.

Bronze Reflections—UX and Startup Weekend Oakland

Many of us in California come from temperate climes where autumn heralds changing leaves, crisp apples, and chilly evenings in addition to that busy back-to-school mentality. As a native Minnesotan who has lived in the souther hemisphere for five years and 90 miles south of the equator for nearly ten years, I yearn for the four seasons of my youth (sans sub-zero temperatures thank you very much). Currently based in Oakland, I hastened to register for a quintessential back-to-school activity afforded by 54 hours of activity immersed in the “unique intersection of education, innovation and business.”

My background, which I recently realized is t-shaped, has spanned the three disciplines stated on Startup Weekend Education’s (SWEDU) website. User experience (UX) design is the common thread in projects ranging from m exhibition design to training healthcare workers in digital project management. I expected this skill to be of value to a team tasked with producing a product or service—including a revenue model, conducting market research, and creating a prototype—over the course of a weekend. 

Startup Weekend is a global grassroots movement of active and empowered entrepreneurs who are learning the basics of founding startups and launching successful ventures. It is the largest community of passionate entrepreneurs, with events in over 100 countries and 580 cities around the world.

We were given 60 short seconds to pitch our idea. My STEAM-powered STEM “Mozart maker curriculum in a box” idea flopped big time. After hearing 35 pitches, the entire gathering of attendees walked around the room voting for pitches by attaching stickers to placards on which the name of each project was written. I scrawled a few names down in my notebook during the pitches to remind me of the teams I wished to join. I jotted down: “#11—engage informal game, #22—CoLAB, #27—Pimp My Classroom, #31—Autism app on a sleeve.”

The following morning I joined “Pimp My Classroom” because the woman who pitched it (all the way from Denver, CO just for this weekend) was the person I had met during our “ice-breaker” activity the previous evening and because her idea was excellent. The pith of it was to create a a website to help teachers creatively arrange their classroom resources—tech, people, furniture —to enhance learning.

The first few hours of our collaboration comprised a balancing act of attempting to map our direction forward as a team whilst swerving off in multiple directions as we riffed on ideas about what our product/service would actually by the time of judging on Sunday evening. The constant feeling of pressure to be productive may have stymied some of the creativity that might have arisen in an extensive tech incubator situation.

 

The judging criteria steered our process. Fortunately, Stephen, who is a student in the Mills Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business MBA/MA in Educational Leadership program, took the reins with the business model and I agreed to be the UX (User Experience/Design) person. Makisha—the founding mother of our project—and Mathew, a colleague of hers focused on the surveys with a couple of women who joined our team but dropped out after Saturday. At one point I was working on wireframes for a website while other team members were conducting a research interview with a teacher, which is also known as customer validation.

In retrospect, some of the most valuable moments of the weekend were times spent with Coaches/Mentors. According to the Startup Weekend Organizer’s Guide (http:// startupweekend.org/organizer/organizers-guide/) Community members are invited to offer advice to and share their knowledge with with the teams. We had the opportunity to choose the coaches with whom we worked and our diverse group chose a mixed bag of coaches: one offered creative advice on how to brainstorm a project title (“Pimp My Classroom” carried some controversial connotations we were told) and another suggested how we might SHOW our intention on the website with case studies.

In the end, our team pulled together a concise presentation of our product, Spatial Intentions: a platform to “introduce creative solutions to teachers new and old, and a forum of imagination and sharing amongst educators.”

This is what we saw as the problem our product was addressing:

  • The environments our children learn in effect the way they perceive their roles, power structures, and social values in society. Yet the current arrangements and assumptions reflect archaic ideals.
  • Classroom environments do not always cater to special needs, independent learning styles, or project based learning.
  • Many teachers are faced with limited resources or poor support structures.

Here is how our product could address the problem:

  • We would create a platform to introduce creative solutions to teachers new and old.
  • We would host a forum of imagination and sharing amongst educators.
 

How our product is valuable from customer perspective:

  • New teachers could learn from seasoned veterans; plus the enthusiasm and cutting-edge techniques from freshly minted teachers could influence long-time teachers.
  • Teachers could learn creative ways to connect their classroom/environmental resources to better accommodate their students academic and social/emotional needs.
 

A valuable suggestion from one of our coaches was to spearhead our target audience, as follows:

  • Urban Environments
  • Public School Districts with high HS Dropout Rates
  • 3rd-8th grades

Although we did not win the gold, our third place—bronze—seems like the right color for our team. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to the bronze period a “the prehistoric period during which weapons, etc. were made of bronze, and which was preceded by the Stone Period, and succeeded by the Iron Period.” In educational technology, we are just emerging out of the Stone Age, which harkens back to the Ancient Greek lecture style and has been updated with electronic white boards. Education structures are becoming alloys—just as bronze is an alloy of copper and tin—of tried and true methods of lecture/illustration/demonstration combined with digitally mediated social spaces such as Edmodo, gaggle, and ClassroomSalon.