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Monday, December 2, 2013

Startup Weekend: Tapping brainpower for Edtech

Last weekend, I was on a terrific panel to judge for the 10th annual Startup Weekend EDU , which hosted 70 enthusiastic future entrepreneurs at the University of Washington here in Seattle. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, Startup Weekend is a tech hackathon, held in cities all over the world, where participants try to develop a tech product and with a viable business model with team members they hadn't met before--in 54 hours. Their official description: "Startup Weekend is a global network of passionate leaders and entrepreneurs on a mission to inspire, educate, and empower individuals, teams and communities." 
70 Entrepreneurs eager to tackle Edtech

Startup Weekend also supports a separate version specifically for education since edtech has been gaining more traction and public awareness in the business marketplace. It was not evidenced at the smoothly run event, but this education edition for Seattle was pulled together in a month, thanks to the hard work of the enthusiastic volunteer team! And under the direction of new program manager Mandela Schumacher-Hodge. (Ms. Schumacher-Hodge was not only a former winner of the program who went on to generate a startup, but she is also an educator, with a mission to help generate collective intelligence to improve education.) So even while I was honored to be asked to on the panel of four including: James Cooper of Kaplan Legal Education, Rebeca Lovell, serial entrepreneur and Instructor at UW Foster School of Business, and Charles Wright, Deputy Superintendent of Seattle Schools, to judge this weekend's event, I'm also really excited to see what's going to happen with the program in the years to come, being led by an educator.

The winning My Worksheets team
The top two winners for the Seattle event were MyWorksheets in first place, and Little Programmers took second. MyWorksheets converts paper lessons into digital versions that can be used on an iPad in minutes, using the iPad camera and a simple drag and drop interface. What impressed us about MyWorksheets was that it was not only well thought out and well executed (in 54 hours!), it solved a very large problem in education. Getting the large amounts of tried and true, valuable traditional paper lessons into a useful form as classrooms convert to digital curriculum. This team was lead by a former teacher, and solved a real-life education problem, quickly and easily. We could easily see this being adapted like wildfire into schools through teacher word of mouth.

The Little Programmers team
Second place winner Little Programmers teaches elementary-grade students the basics of programming through friendly and engaging gameplay. The demo showed a few animated animals, and to play the user had to decide who stole the cookies using an "If-then" methodology that parallels programming language.

Other contenders addressed key issues such as writing skills, mentoring, and special education. I was very pleased to see such a wide range of problems being tackled for education, including "soft" skills such as determining a life plan--rather than just applying technology to pure academic subjects. There are so many inherent roadblocks in the existing public education system--I'm hoping that next year, we can offer some more detailed issues as part of the problem sets, so that we can focus that energetic brainpower to helping to solve specific problems and create a better classroom experience for all.

This business introduces you to such terrific people --I also got the chance to spend time with the fantastic facilitator Katrina Stevens, who is a former educator, curriculum designer, moderator of #edtechchat and overall dedicated advocate for education. Now both teams go on to compete at the NorthWest Battle, which includes non EDU winners. Send them luck! Sam Woodard, of team My Worksheets closed with a poignant reminder: "If you really want to help education, go talk to a teacher. They're full of great ideas, with no time or resources to build them." Thanks again to the Seattle Startup Weekend EDU team, I had a great time, and hope the participants did too. I'm optimistic at what these fantastic brains and positive energy committed to change can accomplish!