Innovative school prize goes to program that trains students in app design, coding
A Philadelphia after-school program won $50,000 from The Mind Trust to refine its idea for a school
Suppose you had $50,000 to scrap everything you know about school and design from scratch a new way for children to learn that would be better fit for new realities of life and work in the 21st century.
What would your school of the future look like?
A gathering in Indianapolis today took a stab at answering that question.
The idea that won the cash prize was STEMNASIUM, a school concept built on a Philadelphia-based after-school program that infuses computer science learning into all subjects with student projects built around designing apps, games and other technology tools.
The $50,000 award comes from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit organization promoting educational change that created the competition, but it could prove to be just a sweetener.
The group has a related grant program that will award a total of $1 million to four groups that offer the most groundbreaking plans to launch charter schools in Indianapolis. To win the bigger prize, their ideas will need to again impresses a group of judges as having the best chance to chart new courses in education.
Even defining what is meant by “new directions” in education isn’t easy, however.
“I don’t actually know what innovation in education is,” luncheon speaker Earl Martin Phalen, who founded a summer program and then a charter school after a Mind Trust fellowship lured him from Boston to try his ideas in Indianapolis. “Everything has been done somewhere. But our kids need excellence. Innovation coupled with cutting edge ideas — that brings excellence for children and that’s what we need.”
STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir, built his program on lessons he learned from his own life as a boy who got into serious legal trouble growing up in Brooklyn, and as a father of a child with Asperger’s syndrome.
“I was a curious teenager,” he said. “Comic books felt outdated so I decided to learn how to write code.”
His computer skills landed him in court after he hacked into his school’s computer and changed grades for some of his friends.
A judge gave him a choice: face severe consequences or enlist in the military. He joined the Navy, where he became a counter-intelligence officer.
As a father, he struggled to help his son learn until a crystallizing moment.
“I saw him eating a sandwich and he tore it up,” Al-Nasir said. “I said there is a better way to do it. I cut it into small pieces. That was the foundation for STEMNASIUM.”
The “STEM” in STEMNASIUM stands for science, technology engineering and math.The 13-year old program teaches coding and programming to children as young as age three. It currently operates as an after-school program in Philadelphia.
His most famous student is Zora Ball, the youngest person ever to create a mobile phone app. She created her video game at age eight.
But Al-Nasir also has students in Indianapolis.
Two years ago, he offered a weekend program in computer skills for young children at Arsenal Tech High School. He’s kept in touch with a couple of his star Indianapolis students. Al-Nasir pulled out his phone and showed pictures of the students, who he said occasionally consult him for advice on projects they are continuing to create.
“STEM is a language,” he said. “If we put children in front of this early on we can have amazing results.”
STEMNASIUM was not the only STEM-oriented pitch the judges heard.
In fact, as novel as some of the school designs proposed, many of them incorporated shared ideas, especially having students spend time outside of school, working on solving real community problems and learning directly from professionals at companies or other organizations.
Other ideas shared by more than one group was peer teaching, which uses students who have mastered skills to tutor their peers who are still learning them, and using online learning programs to fill some of the instructional needs.
The four finalists were selected from 12 semifinalist groups from Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Rhode Island and California. In all, 36 applicants were considered.
Like STEMNASIUM, runner-up HackSchool, based in Denver, also currently operates as an after-school program.
HackSchool’s co-founder Nathan Pai Schmitt is a former Teach For America corps member who now teaches at STRIVE Prep Excel charter school. He raised more than $35,000 through Kickstarter — twice the goal — for a pilot project that’s been underway since January.
Thirty students, about half of them girls, spend two hours after school four days a week in part of an art classroom that Pai Schmitt has converted into what he calls a “socially conscious maker space.” Using technology such as 3-D modeling software and 3-D printers, the kids create products to help solve real community problems.
One student who helped present, Anahi Gandara Rodriguez, is making a smart cane with an earpiece that warns blind users about obstacles.
“I want to be something in this world,” said Edgar Campos-Escobedo, another student presenter, “but I feel like education system today is making it hard for me to succeed.”
At the competition, Pai Schmitt pitched an idea for a HackSchool high school.
HackSchool students would make weekly schedules on their own, either choosing coursework teachers offer or working independently each morning. In the afternoons, they would do intensive study — advanced work, electives or extra help for those who are struggling — and internships with partner organizations.
Other runner up ideas were:
Rooted Schools, a New Orleans-based pilot program billing its idea as “micro charter schools” that trains small groups of students in skills for specific high-paying high-demand jobs.
Ubique, an idea from an Ohio-based group that would shift most learning away from actual schools toward community-based projects supported by four learning “hubs” with teachers.
The Mind Trust is known in Indianapolis for incubating charter schools and offering fellowships to educators with ideas for creating new schools. So far, most of the schools that have been born from that work have had innovative features but largely followed a traditional school design.
This latest Mind Trust effort is designed to reach for even more out-of-the-box thinking. All of the presenting groups were invited to apply for a share of the $1 million grant pool to create new schools.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified HackSchool co-founder Pai Schmitt as a former STRIVE charter school teacher. He continues to teach at STRIVE. The story has also been changed to clarify that HackSchool currently exists as an after-school program, not as a full school.