Event Fosters Software and STEM Entrepreneurs for Education

Side benefits go to Kansas City as a budding startup magnet

kansas city at night

A Startup Weekend that brought together entrepreneurs who created education software and concepts was recently held in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, which has a growing reputation as a Midwest startup magnet.

Credit: Dave Kaup/Reuters

Weekend hackathons for developers have been around for years. Now they are popping up everywhere.

Hackathons usually aren't about hacking into some top-secret network. Most of them are really mini-startup laboratories that help boost the careers of enterpreneurs.

Often, an organization picks a location and lures developers and others to show up and write code intensely around the clock for a weekend or so. There's a loosely defined objective most times, then small developer teams traditionally drink gallons of Red Bull, cram and create nearly finished apps or other software prototypes or services that they hope to take to market some day.

In one recent example, about 100 educators, parents and technology pros converged last weekend at Crossroads Academy in downtown Kansas City, Mo., for an event called Startup Weekend Education—KC. They explored and produced, over a 54-hour period, new ways of delivering educational resources, sometimes for needy school children and other groups. Nine teams developed the ideas, which included software that was created on computers attached to a new, fast Wi-Fi network in the academy building. The school first opened in 2012 and was connected to 1 Gbps Google Fiber that is running throughout the entire Kansas City area. Without such fast connection speeds, the event wouldn't have occurred there.

"We had a Friday night pitch session where we heard 22 concepts and then nine ideas were picked for further work," said Katie Boody, an organizer of the event and co-founder of an urban education nonprofit called The Lean Lab.

The participants were given a broad mission. "The teams had to create some sort of venture to benefit education in the broadest sense," she said in an interview.

By Sunday afternoon, the top finisher in the event was a group called My Learning, which created an app to help teach students how to write difficult Japanese characters. Second place went to Pennez.com for adaptive reading software that helps highlight protagonists of color in instructional materials. Third place went to a group called Stucco that created software designed to help digitize student disciplinary and referral forms. The top two teams won the chance to advance their projects with expert assistance at the nearby Sprint Accelerator.

One of the nine teams worked on a project called Mobile Maker, a startup concept to bring 3D printers, plasma cutters and other tools into after-school, do-it-yourself spaces to inspire interest in jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Mobile Maker already has pilot schools signed up for the concept, but the team needs to raise funds, said Clayton Kohler, a member of the team who was in charge of business plan creation and cost analysis during cram sessions. "We still have work to do with our website and then funding before we get into schools, and I believe we are only two months max away," he said.

Kohler, a native of St. Louis, is a freshman at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Even if the teams' end products don't make it to market or get vastly altered, the event helped create excitement among participants. There was spinoff value for Crossroads Academy as well and for Kansas City's growing reputation as a Midwest startup magnet.

"The startup weekend was an incredible event," Kohler said, with the only hiccup a videoconference with a city official that hit a glitch. "Kansas City is the perfect city for a startup like ours."

"There was a lot of energy and a lot of fun," added Boody, a former middle school math teacher who participated in the Teach For America program. "It was really cool to see so many computer programmers, teachers and entrepreneurial cheerleaders. It was such a cool mix of people."

At the Crossroads

Boody lives in an older house in the downtown area near Crossroads Academy. She moved back to the Kansas City area after leaving for a time in search of the opportunities the area now affords. "For overall entrepreneurship, this is an important time for Kansas City," she said. "We're seeing a lot of economic development in housing and transportation and seeing people move back in to the downtown and buy homes and even move companies here."

Crossroads Academy, a tuition-free charter school for 280 pupils in kindergarten through grade 7, recently beefed up its Wi-Fi access atop the Google Fiber connection with help from Meshworks, a wireless consultancy.

"Actually, it was perfect timing," Boody said. "We got really lucky that they put in more Wi-Fi access points. Every team was crunching code and had a tech component to their work."

The academy is located in the renovated historic Kirk Building, which originally opened in 1908. The building is where Walt Disney once worked for the Kansas City Slide Company and was introduced to the basics of motion pictures and animation, according to Dean Johnson, Crossroads Academy co-founder and executive director.

The academy chose the downtown location, just three blocks from a coming streetcar line to run along Main Street, partly because of its proximity to civic and cultural amenities, Johnson said. No other grade schools were located in the area. Students use the nearby Kansas City central library as their school library and have recess on the nearby Barney Allis Plaza. The historic Folly Theater in downtown is where the students perform school musicals.

Technology is intentionally embedded in the academy's curriculum, with access to a 3D printer and instruction in writing code, for example. With grant support, each student will soon have a computer of some kind.

"Technology is important to us, but it is not the end goal, [which is] for students to develop critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication skills," said Tysie McDowell-Ray, Crossroads Academy co-founder and principal.

In that sense, Crossroads was probably the perfect place to host a weekend hackathon for education innovators.

This story, "Event Fosters Software and STEM Entrepreneurs for Education" was originally published by Computerworld.

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