Future Bosses in the Making: A Meeting with 'Junior CEOs' at Katherine Smith Elementary

Future Bosses in the Making: A Meeting with 'Junior CEOs' at Katherine Smith Elementary

By
Talia Arbit

Summer interns typically spend the day taking notes, performing data entry, and stuck with the ignoble task of making coffee.

But in San Jose, CA, 15 interns are calling the shots like CEOs, charged with driving product design and user engagement. And--get this--they’re ages 9 to 11.

They’re part of a “Junior CEOs” program that is happening thanks to a collaboration between Edcite, a startup based in Sunnyvale, CA, and Katherine Smith Elementary School, which serves 650 K-6 students from predominantly working-class Latino and Vietnamese families, 88% of whom are on free and reduced lunch.

Their challenge for the summer is to help Edcite, which offers a library of Common Core questions and exercises, more engaging for student users. All the ideating, sketching and prototyping takes place in a “Think Lab,” a converted classroom that has all the makings of a startup’s office, with reconfigurable desks, ergonomic chairs, couches, side tables, flat-screen TVs and MacBooks.

Starting Fresh

Such a project was previously unheard of at Katherine Smith Elementary. Up until a couple years ago, recalls principal Aaron Brengard, teachers and students were focused on a very different kind of business: taking tests. “Our school was not a place teachers wanted to be. The focus was aligned around doing better on the state test. Teachers were asked to use test release questions and focus on test taking strategies daily.”

Faced with student behavior problems and low teacher morale in this test-driven culture, Brengard decided in 2012 to “reinvent” the school, along with its curriculum and schedule, according to project-based learning (PBL) principles. All academic skills and standards were to be taught through projects that had real-world relevance.

The transformation began with a dramatic personnel overhaul. “When given the option to transfer [out of the school], 75% of the staff voluntarily took it,” says Brengard. The school then recruited new teachers, all of whom had to commit to a new professional culture that emphasized risk-taking and experimentation. Instead of asking students to fill out rows and worksheets, these teachers were expected to instill in students the “4Cs” (collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity).

“One of the most important elements was having our professional culture mirror the practices of what we were expecting from our students,” explains Brengard. To make this happen, the school worked with the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit organization that provides training and resources to help educators implement PBL across the country. In 2013, Katherine Smith Elementary joined the New Tech Network, a community of 135 PBL schools in 23 states (and Australia) that provides teachers with a range of support and services, including grading rubrics and a learning management system.

The School and the Startup

But one of the challenges in creating a PBL curriculum, says fourth-grade teacher, Doris Malmin, is “finding real-world problems to students to solve.” When she raised this issue at an Edcamp in Palo Alto, CA on February 2014, several members from Edcite who were present offered to help. The company, founded four years ago in India, launched in the U.S. in November 2013 and saw this as an opportunity to get feedback.

After several follow-up conversations, a student-led tour of Katherine Smith Elementary, and a meeting with the tech leadership team, the school and the startup finalized an agreement to create a summer program for students. “We saw the value of internships as a way to offer deeper learning opportunities for kids,” explains Malmin.

In order to give students the experience of working in a startup, the company decided the environment had to look like one, too. To this end, Edcite paid for some of the furniture and technology upgrades to convert one of the classrooms into the ThinkLab.

On April 14, the “Junior CEO” program was announced. And much like any job, the first step was a rigorous application process. Forty-two students applied via a Google form, answering questions like “What was a project that you worked on that was super exciting?” and “If you had a superpower, what would it be?” Teams from Edcite and Katherine Smith reviewed the applications and conducted interviews on May 7.

Fifteen Junior CEOs from grades 4 to 6 were selected, and the four-week program started on July 7. The Edcite team and Katherine Smith Elementary teachers spent the first week teaching students the process behind design thinking, borrowing resources and exercises developed at Stanford d.school. The Junior CEOs familiarized themselves with terms like “problem validation” and “empathy” and learned to offer feedback with sentences that begin with “I like,” “I wonder,” and “What if?”

Learning from the Kids

In the second week, students tackled the main problem posed by the startup: How do you make Edcite, which bills itself as “Common Core Practice Assignments for K12,” engaging for kids?

What kids may be lacking in booksmarts, they certainly make up for by being candid in their opinions and feedback. And these Junior CEOs did not shy away from expressing their disapproval of Edcite’s website. “The homepage didn’t look too creative,” quips Gilbert (age 11). His teammate, Jacob (10), agrees: “When I first saw Edcite, I thought it looked really plain.”

As students brainstormed ways to make learning more “engaging,” many of the conversations turned to games. The Junior CEOs spent several days--and many sheets of paper and Post-It notes--breaking down why they enjoyed playing games. They also explored other edtech tools such as IXL Learning and Quizlet to compare and contrast the design and user interface. Students were asked to share their reflections everyday on their own blogs.

Based on their findings, the fifteen students broke off into seven teams to design prototypes. Two groups designed games using PixelPress that students can play in between completing Edcite assignments. Emily (age 9) and Helena (10), mocked up a rewards system to incentivize students to complete exercises. Similarly, Gilbert (11) and Jacob (9) proposed adding avatars and backgrounds that can be customized based on how well students answer the questions.

Other teams focused on more practical problems. Fred (10), inspired by social networking, proposed a feature that allows users to ask each other questions, based on their expertise. Alexis (9) and Itzel (10) are recording “How-To” videos using Camtasia to help students navigate the site. “Some of the younger students don’t know how to use the site,” comments Alexis. “They don’t know how to log in, or use the drag-and-drop features.”

During the day, other students from Katherine Smith Elementary will visit the ThinkLab to watch and listen to what the Junior CEOs are building and offer feedback. Here, the teams are practicing their presentations to a class of second graders.

On July 31, the Junior CEOs presented their ideas to their parents, teachers and the Edcite team. And while the startup may not be keen on adding fire-breathing dragons, pastel-colored trophies, and instant messaging features to the platform, Edcite founder, Tony Thomas, says “we learned about what students would like when they are learning.” His colleague, Talia Arbit, who heads Edcite’s K-12 community engagement, adds: “The students gave us so many outstanding ideas for the site--some of which (like the customizable home page) we have already started working on!”

The most important feedback for Edcite? “Kids want to feel like they are playing a video game when they are practicing content online. They want to feel like its a puzzle, not an assignment,” says Arbit.

Engaged Culture

The Junior CEO program is just one example of many project-based activities that students partake in throughout the school year. Past projects include re-enacting the lives of Gold Rush Forty-Niners, sailing cardboard boats to learn about buoyancy, and presenting strategies to deal with stray animals.

By instilling a new culture around pedagogy, creativity, responsibility and technology, Brengard says Katherine Smith Elementary has already seen a dramatic improvement in engagement from both the students and teachers, as well as the community. Now in its third year since the reinvention, suspensions have dropped from 70 (in the last year before the transformation) to single digits. “At our Exhibition Night, we had 1,500 visitors and 97% of our students in attendance,” shares Brengard. “Prior, the school was happy with 300.”


From left: Talia Arbit (Edcite), Doris Malman (Katherine Smith Elementary), Sheryl Melo (Katherine Smith Elementary), Tony Thomas (Edcite)

The Junior CEOs will leave the program having gone through the ups and downs of product development. “I wanted to experience what it feels like to work for a website,” says Emily, “and this helps me understand that.” Her partner, Helena, adds: “When I grow up, I’ll know a little bit about what I have to go through when working in a company.”

They also discovered that being the boss isn’t always fun and games. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get along because some of us don’t understand each other,” says Alexis. “We don’t always agree.”

That certainly sounds like a CEO in the making.

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