A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Technovation Challenge competition for high school girls at Twitter Intergalactic Headquarters in San Francisco put on by Iridescent Learning and sponsored by Google, Twitter, Adobe, Microsoft and Intel. My daughter, Elizabeth Shelly, was one of the women mentors for the FroggyCut team. When she called a couple of months ago to let me know she was doing the mentoring I asked her to make sure I knew when the competition was going to be so I could attend.
The competition is designed to encourage high school girls to get interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and professions. This year’s challenge was in ten weeks to design and build a working Android mobile application for scientific learning and then build a business plan. At the regional competition, eight teams displayed a poster and demoed their apps and then gave a four minute presentation along with answering questions for four minutes from industry judges.
Teams of four high school students (sophomores through seniors) enter the competition. Each team has two women industry professionals assigned as both technical and business mentors. Each team also needs to have a teacher who will work with them at school for the 10 weeks. None of the girls that my daughter worked with had ever programmed before. So for the first four weeks a woman computer science grad student from Berkeley taught them how to program using the AppInventor visual programming language.
The weekly mentor meeting is held at the facilities of one of the sponsoring companies. So Elizabeth’s team met at Twitter. Along with the regularly scheduled mentors, two Twitter women software engineers worked with them each week and gave them tours of the facility to see what it would be like to work in a high tech company. Lots of great role modeling throughout the whole process.
With four weeks learning how to program, the teams only had six weeks to develop the app, develop a business plan, create a presentation and create a poster for the poster session.
Elizabeth’s team FroggyCut won the challenge for their regional. They went to Intel HQ in San Jose for the Nationals presentation and made their pitch (alas FroggyCut didn’t win at Nationals).
Quite simply I was blown away by the professionalism of the young women, the thoughtfulness of their designs, and the enthusiasm they had for demonstrating their product to anyone who came close to their poster. Jessica, the young woman pictured above, grabbed me by the arm when I got close to her poster, gave me a 30 second pitch for their product, and then placed her Android phone in my hands and insisted that I play the whole FroggyCut game. Most marketing professionals at trade fairs are not nearly as engaging as this young woman.
I couldn’t believe it. They produced a fully working app which the judges both loved and loved the value proposition for the app, particularly for international markets. Not just an app, but a business plan. Amazing. And all of the eight teams at the competition were from inner city San Francisco public schools. Clearly something amazing happens when an interdisciplinary learning environment is set up for success.
The program is organized by Iridescent Learning which is a non-profit that also creates and sells educational mobile learning apps for high school students. So from a virtuous cycle standpoint they are performing an important social service, encouraging young women to enter STEM professional fields, and then gaining some market information on what high school students might like and use. Every single student team presentation started with some form of “text books suck” and we need a better way to learn that isn’t so old school.
This year the Technovation Challenge required each team to have a teacher from the girls high school to help guide the team in addition to the mentors. Glen Botha (pictured above) was the science teacher working with the FroggyCut girls at June Jordan School for Equity. In addition to his teaching work, Glen got frustrated a couple of years ago that there were no Android apps for teachers. So he taught himself how to program using AppInventor and created TeacherAid. He was amazed when withing two days of publishing the app there were 500 downloads. Glen enthusiastically demonstrated one of the apps for taking attendance. Not only can he quickly touch and click to identify who is present, but if somebody isn’t in class an SMS text message is immediately sent to the parents. I sure am glad teachers didn’t have this capability when I was in high school.
Iridescent also helps those young women who actually want to start a company and commercialize their app to enter other competitions to gain additional startup funding.
Along with their financial support for hosting the teams during the ten weeks and at the competitions, the corporations are also doing further encouragement. Google for example offered every single participant (550+) the opportunity to participate in a summer bootcamp at Google to continue their app development education.
The program is only three years old and has grown from 40 girls the first year to over 550 this year. They got a lot of their vision from Seattle based Startup Weekends and from the high school student Robotics Competition (250,000+ participants which are mostly boys).
I am very excited about the success of this program and the organizers. I am encouraging them to come to Seattle.
Great fun. Great learning. And it was a joy as a father to see my daughter acting as a wonderful role model for other young women.
I loved the framed print hanging in the Twitter HQ Lobby – “Google before you Tweet is the new Think before you Speak.”