Startup Weekend EDU Helps Educators Reimagine The Classroom

Education reformers should look to Pittsburgh for inspiration about next generation schools and partnerships.

We’ve all seen the brilliance of crowd-sourced funding and startups, with sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter changing the way businesses are created and sustained. But what happens when you apply that ideology to education? Some 130 experts, educators, and programmers found out firsthand during San Francisco’s first Startup Weekend EDU: NextGen Schools, a full weekend dedicated to brainstorming concepts for new schools.

EdSurge writer Katrina Stevens referred to the 54-hour event as an “inspiring, incubator-like environment,” and she’s exactly right. “The weekend was designed to capture all the frenetic energy associated with startups and pour it into reimagining schools,” she said.

Typically Startup Weekends are held to design a business or a specific product, so it can be tricky to apply this model of idea-sharing to the construction of an actual school, especially when it comes to the logistics of sustaining innovative ideas on a tight budget.  “It’s easy to recognize that the factory model of education is broken—it’s far scarier to imagine and build next generation schools,” said the event’s opening speaker, Charter School Growth Fund partner Alex Hernandez.

Despite the challenges, the 15 participating teams came up with a few stellar ideas, including “EduHub,” a building shared by startups and other organizations. The idea is to seamlessly encourage more partnerships and mentorship opportunities that would benefit students.

While reading about EduHub, I couldn’t help but think of Pittsburgh’s Saxifrage School. While it is a post-secondary school, it still maintains a cooperative laboratory-type model that relies on area partnerships and uses local experts as its teachers. The school is built around making and physical productivity, utilizing various locations around the city as its campus and offering higher education at a fraction of the typical cost. “What’s the point of spending a fortune to reinvent the wheel? Everything you need to operate a campus is already right there in the community,” said the school’s founding director Tim Cook.

Two of the most exciting ideas that surfaced over the weekend included the first runner-up “Real Magic School Bus,” which would serve as a mobile learning space, and the contest-winning “EPIC,” a middle school divided into houses similar to those at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter Series. “Students would be defined not by grade levels but by their placement along a 12-level mastery continuum for each content area,” said Stevens of the EPIC model, led by Hae-Sin Thomas, CEO of Education for Change Public Schools. “In addition, at the end of each six-week block, all students get to adopt a persona and then set out on competitive quests that could take them all over the city,” writer Katrina Stevens explained.

Finalists responsible for these two concepts won support to attend a 4.0 Schools Essentials programming event in New Orleans to hone their designs and, ideally, pitch their ideas to organizations and school administrators.

Stevens reported that, in addition to these winning models, common themes emerged from the weekend’s pitches and presentations. Concepts like less rigid school structures and more community involvement were part of many of the ideas shared at the event.  In general, the focus was on perseverance, problem-solving, and connecting students with deeper learning experiences.

Much of what conference participants sought to implement in their designs is already going on in Pittsburgh schools, many of which prioritize meaningful community partnerships. By working in tandem, schools like those in the Elizabeth Forward School District outside of Pittsburgh have been able to offer unique opportunities for their students to enhance their learning and apply their skills to real-world situations. For example, the Elizabeth Forward District partnered with Carnegie Mellon University and the education gaming firm Zulama to develop their Entertainment Technology Academy, where students can study the history and application of gaming, and design and program their own educational apps and video games.

By working collaboratively, institutions big and small are learning from one another, testing out new ideas, and learning what works. They’re also creating new opportunities for students to learn both in and out of the classroom. As the winning participants from the California conference further develop their ideas, hopefully they will look to Pittsburgh where, in addition to cutting-edge technology and STEAM learning programs, unique community-based partnerships are building the schools of the future.


Published July 10, 2013