Reducing the delta

Technology is playing an increasingly larger role in our lives, yet there are major portions of the word vastly under-represented in the global discussion of what is best for future generations. The internet represents not only the collective human knowledge but also the ability to access that knowledge in real time. It enables learning and opportunity. Unfortunately, only ⅓ of the current world population has access to the internet. Even for those connected to the internet, the zip code lottery is still very much in effect.

We started ExtensionEngine.org (the non-profit arm of ExtensionEngine) with the desire to help under-represented groups of people participate in the global economy through technology. Our background is in building education technology for some of the world’s leading educational institutions including Harvard and MIT. We traveled to many places and noticed a recurring theme: a gap between university studies and current job markets. I was very fortunate to have mentors like Glenn House and Frank Perlmutter who pointed me in the right direction as a young college student. I always knew that when I had the chance, I’d try my very best to help others students in the same way Glenn & Frank helped me.

It was in early 2015 that I first met Maurice while on a trip to Barbados. Maurice is a man on a mission. He has had multiple high paying job offers in various countries but is intrinsically motivated to push his students on his own time. He told me stories for hours about his students who are passionate and highly intelligent. They couldn’t wait to get out into the real world and be a part of interesting technology projects. Maurice founded the Computer Science Society at the University of West Indies Cave Hill to help them better prepare for the international job markets.

Maurice and I were sitting in his Jeep touring the island of Barbados. I asked him how ExtensionEngine.org could help. That conversation turned into a friendship that will last many, many years. Our first stop the next day was a local school. The goal was to excite the students about the possibilities of technology. We taught “Intro to Building Things with Computers” using MIT’s Scratch. The school had no internet access and no computers — just a group of excited students who thought they were going to play video games all day. In the first 5 minutes I delivered the bad news that we’d be building games instead of playing them. We hooked up some Raspberry PIs to the school’s monitors and off they went.

Fast forward a few hours and each of the students had built a maze game where a cat navigates through a maze to eat some cheese. I was thrilled with the results given the age group (10–18) but I wasn’t convinced we had ignited any sparks. I stepped outside to meet with the teachers for a few minutes and came back to witness several students starting to build their own games, unguided, and without being asked. They were using what we just taught them to create their own online worlds. The students just needed to be shown what’s possible and to be given access to the basic tools to get started.

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. Maurice asked us at ExtensionEngine.org to come down, teach a real world skill set and help bridge the gap between college and career opportunities. The problem the students face is that there are very few technology startups in Barbados. Students aren’t exposed to technology in the real world like we take for granted in Boston, California, and across the U.S. We’ve noticed this disparity across many regions with our work at ExtensionEngine.

We partnered with Maurice’s Computer Science Society and designed a week long session for the students. What started as “Let’s teach students how to build a mobile app” turned into a full-fledged entrepreneurial competition complete with six nicely working demos in front of family, friends, and many of the school’s faculty. Students had their applications featured in press articles and many were on local TV stations.

Teaching at the local level is very rewarding. Last year’s “aha” moment for me was when I turned my back and students were building their own games. This year’s “aha” moment was arriving at the lab an hour early one day and seeing a dozen students, outside on picnic tables, crowded around a wifi access point working on their projects. Some had bags under their eyes and I could tell they hadn’t slept much. I’m very proud of what the students were able to accomplish in one week.

What we’ve learned so far:

  • Students cared just as much about the context of their tools. It was amazing to see computer science student’s questions ranging from pricing models, to project management, to user acquisition.
  • One week is not enough. We’re in the process of designing a hybrid on-site/remote six week session. We have conducted six week sessions in Croatia and found that to be a better timeframe.
  • Passion is found everywhere, not just in major tech hubs around the world.
  • A great partner is very important. Without Maurice, this session would not have stood a chance.

We see this as an iterative process, each session we develop will be better than the last. Our hope is to have students from the initial sessions involved in future sessions, this time as teachers.

We’ll be checking back to post progress. These are the first steps of a long journey.

A major thank you to some very key contributors for this week. Thank you to Furqan Nazeeri and Bob Allard for funding this week’s session and for the support you’ve put behind this initiative. Thank you to Eric Sullivan of Foundation Labs for donating the prizes for the top teams. Big thanks to Dino & Andrej, two top software engineers from ExtensionEngine (Croatia) who took time away from leading their large teams to lead the teaching efforts. Big thanks to our local support: Adrian, Tessa (aka “doc”), and Dr. Colin Depradine, the Dean for the Faculty of Science and Technology at the Cave Hill Campus. And last but not least Ash Edmonds of BasAsh Creative for helping with design and mentorship.

We see this as the very beginning of a longterm project where there is real opportunity to make a significant difference in the lives of students. I’d encourage those thinking of getting involved in this type of project to take the first step. Let me know how I can help.

If interested in running a session like this with your organization, or for any other queries, contact me in twitter land @miklavic or via email: mike [at] extensionengine dot com