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When Middle School Students Drive Education Innovation

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“We have only one of the two crucial components of entrepreneurship. We have computers but no coffee,” a group of 12-year-olds told keynote speaker Andrew Sutherland, founder of Quizlet, at the first Startup Weekend for middle school students.

Okay, okay. We’ll take ownership of that oversight. Good on the iPads and Chromebooks for all, but next time enough coffee for 60 tweens for a full weekend. Noted.

In our defense, it was the first Startup Weekend Education for student entrepreneurs ages 11-13, the youngest age group in Startup Weekend history.

Not only do these Mountain View students have the developmental advantage of easy access to the most innovative businesses and resources, but many are children of parents who work for such companies. From an early age they are exposed to the latest technology and words like ‘Java’, ‘HTML’ and ‘CSS’.

It was hardly a challenge in Mountain View to build student interest in technology. On opening night when we asked the students who knew how to code, about a quarter of them raised their hands. When we asked who was a designer, about a third of the hands rose. And they were hungry for more--the SWEDUMV developer and designer coaching workshops were overflowing and buzzing throughout the weekend.

Chris Chiang, lead organizer of the event, is a middle school history teacher, technologist and a school board trustee for the Mountain View Whisman School District. He explained in an interview why middle school students need to be the center of Startup Weekend Education. He anticipated the experience being equally beneficial for the kids and adult helpers. He was right on target.

“It was a learning opportunity for all of us,” said Chloe Wood, former SWEDU participant in Oakland and mentor of the winning team, Notebook Check. “Startup Weekend facilitated the learning process for the kids, but we were learning from them too. They have so much conviction about their ideas and zero inhibitions. As adults grow older, we lose that. We lose it and then train ourselves to gain it back. Watching them dive in effortlessly is inspiring.”

It was pretty special to watch middle school students bravely walk up to the mic on Friday night to share their ideas for solving the biggest problems in education today. The audience was engaged, chuckling as they listened to them explain why people should care, for example, why “all the stuff students carry in middle school is the reason Americans have back problems later in life.”

“Ask adults how long they’ve been thinking of the ideas they pitch at Startup Weekend and they’ll say three years, 10 years, 17 years,” said Jessica Falkenthal, who was at her 17th Startup Weekend. “There is no fear with these kids; it’s incredible.”

The coaches arrived at set times on Saturday and Sunday to run one-hour workshops for business planning, coding and design. Some coaches rotated to each startup team to share their message and give students the opportunity to ask questions.

Parents were invited to hang out, but if they wanted to be more involved we asked them to either become a coach to all students or become a mentor to a team other than his/her son/daughter.

On Saturday afternoon a student’s mother dropped by to watch for a couple hours. After she and I had been talking for a few minutes in the gym she said it smelled too heavily of Doritos, so we stepped outside to continue the conversation.

The mother, Premika Ratuam, spoke up: “My son, I’ve never seen him so focused and organized. I can’t believe he is organizing a group. This morning he told me, ‘Everything is under control.’ I’ve never heard him say those words. And when he was on the microphone last night pitching his idea, his voice, it sounded so deep! It was a huge shock. I know their voices are supposed to change about now but that was the first time I’ve heard it on him. His voice…it really filled the whole room! I was wondering to myself, ‘Who is this?’”

Typically adult participants at Startup Weekend have trouble refraining from going over the time limit during their pitches. At SWEDUMV, we hardly had any kids with this problem. They had it all: charisma, humor, concise and simple presentation, and remarkable product demos. Most teams had even designated people to answer specific questions that they anticipated the judges to ask.

Their prototypes were especially impressive considering they had less than 12 hours to work on them on-site. We cut the program duration of the standard 54 hours in half, reasoning that 11-13 year olds have less endurance than adults. But the stricter time constraint the kids faced had no effect on the quality of the apps, websites and the one physical model they built. With the help of Pop, an app that turns hand-drawn wireframes to interactive prototypes, and the superstar mentors and coaches, again, the student entrepreneurs exceeded expectations.

The main takeaway for Leilei Wu, Community Manager at Pop, was a sense of optimism about the value of real-world exposure for the kids. “All the technical stuff you can learn from a book,” Leilei said. “You can learn everything by yourself these days. You need curiosity and you need to know what people really want. Kids have that. But how to think logically about how things work--that is from experience. Adults gain that over time, but think where they could be now if they had started earlier. That’s why it’s important for the kids to be jumping in at this stage.”

It’s clear that the middle school students at Startup Weekend Education Mountain View have mastered the art of showing passion for an idea while also being able to shrug and move on if things didn’t go their way. It would be difficult to measure if that skill existed in them before SWEDUMV, but we do know they were flexing that important muscle often over the weekend, and the adult volunteers and audience fed off that aptitude and energy.

Our next move is providing more environments and support around the world through Startup Weekend to foster those raw skills early and often. If you want to join the revolution of training and building confidence in young entrepreneurs, contact Startup Weekend Education (swedu@up.co) for more info. Words of advice: Don’t underestimate on the coffee.

This post originally appeared on UP Global. See the full post here.

Editor's note: And don't forget that the first StartupWeekend for teens was hosted in February this year by InnovateNYC Schools. 
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