Computer Science, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Robotics, STEM

“No Sage on the Stage”: Lessons Learned on Our Tech Startup Journey

Last week our National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps for Learning (I-Corps L) cohort reconvened in San Francisco to present our lessons learned and whether we reached a “Go” or “No-go” decision.  For our HEIR Corps team at Marquette University, this meant that we had reached the eight week milestone of customer discovery and building a business model canvas.  We interviewed over 100 teachers, principals, STEM educators, superintendents and were able to get feedback from around 200 students from various under-resourced, urban, rural, religious, secular, private, or suburban schools across the country and state.  We also were able to speak to engineers and practitioners, and non-profits that were concerned about where the next generation of STEM and CS trained workers will come from.  I’ll share some highlights on our quest to create a startup to produce low-cost humanoid robots that could help students learn STEM and CS plus give you a clue on what we are going to do next, if anything.

Some of the things I observed include 1) the paradigm shift that K-12 STEM education is moving towards, that 2) there is no one size fits all STEM, computer science, or robotics curriculum, and that 3) teachers (and professors for that matter) need to shift from being solely subject matter experts to becoming facilitators of knowledge.

K-12 STEM education “wants” to shift to becoming a more hands-on, project-based learning paradigm but is finding such an approach hard to assess and scale.  With new common core standards and next generation science standards, teachers and principals must find new ways to teach classic subjects that adhere to newly imposed or suggested standards.  How do teachers do this and still make room for creativity, imagination, and artistic design?

The classic model of a teacher sitting in front of the classroom as the “sage on the stage”, pouring out his or her knowledge to the open minds of students can not exist when that same knowledge is available already via the Internet in the form of YouTube videos, Khan Academy, or Wikipedia.  The searchable and learnable knowledge that exists on the Web makes it possible for a student to become subject matter experts without the classroom.  I’ve observed this as our HEIR lab embarked on a journey to create 3D printed humanoid robots to autonomously play soccer and coach kids in STEM.  I could not stand in front of my students and deliver lecture after lecture on how it could be done as a know-it-all sage.  But I could be a facilitator of knowledge that could collaboratively and interactively generate ideas, point to pockets of knowledge, jump start some technical subject learning, and help them synthesize and integrate the knowledge to an end product.  This required not only technical knowledge facilitation but communication, organization, and teamwork.  This is the new model and paradigm shift that we saw most teachers wanting to move towards.  Teachers need to be encouraged to make this shift and be given the enCOURAGEment to do it.  Because it does take a form of courage to admit that they can’t know it all and that in some cases the students will quickly learn more than them.

We also learned with this “new” model for learning (it has actually existed for quite some time already) that students learn that it’s ok and actually necessary to FAIL.  Students need to be able to get their hands dirty on projects that force them to not only learn new things, but to try a variety of solutions, fail at many of them, but use them to observe what works and why and continue iterating on the solution.  In our “classic” engineering curriculum we teach them to converge to one solution, one right answer, in one particular order.  In a more agile, just-in-time engineering curriculum, the students must first learn to observe and understand how their solution will impact the customer, clearly define the problem, generate as many diverse ideas for possible solutions, create prototypes that can be tested and evaluated by customers, and continue to iterate with these solutions.  In my current object-oriented class, I’ve been able to introduce the agile engineering process along with design thinking and the entrepreneurial mindset because there is one common denominator…the customer.  That is the human user who will experience and be impacted by the solution or product.

There is no one size fits all STEM, robotics, or computer science curriculum.  We talked to educators about Project Lead the Way, Engineering is Elementary, FIRST robotics, Lego robotics, and the list goes on and on.  We were surprised that one of our team members didn’t realize that his school had a very established engineering curriculum through Project Lead the Way until we interviewed his former principal.  He said he was turned off by it because it didn’t appeal to him yet in college he ended up changing his major to engineering.  One all female school we talked to said they rejected Project Lead the Way because it did not appeal to their students. We were told Project Lead the Way was known as “Project Do it Our Way” by some teachers.  I’m just pointing out one example curriculum that we discovered by listening to customers.  My point is that we found that there is not one curriculum that meets everyone’s needs for STEM but we were able to get clues on what new approach is needed.

So what did our HEIR Corps team conclude on our own personal tech startup journey?  Based on our hypothesis driven approach to building a business model canvas (BMC) for a scalable and sustainable business model, we decided that if we were honest with ourselves we were a “No-Go”.  Because a “Go” decision means that we were able to “prove” through the customer discovery phase that our business model was sound and that we were ready to start building and executing a company.  Although we were a “no-go’, we became a “re-do”.  Almost everyone loved our Minimal Viable Product (MVP) but everyone also had different wants and desires for curriculum.  Our customer segment was too broad we discovered.  So we are re-doing our BMC with improved valued propositions, narrowed down customer segments, a new brand to test, and a hot prospect on a key partner.  We have some very promising and budding key partnerships and relationships. We can’t really say more specifics but I’m even more confident than when we began that soon we will be a “go” and that something very big is going to happen for STEM, computer science, and robotics education for K-12 schools, particularly under-resourced ones . This is because we dared to start this journey and have committed to continuing the quest towards a scalable and sustainable business model that can have a significant, positive impact on K-12 education and society.


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