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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When Charles Dickens wrote the best selling novel of all time, A Tale of Two Cities, during Victorian England, he observed that the period was filled with opposing and contradictory realities.

On one hand, industrialization and global trade facilitated by the British Empire had brought dramatic modernization and wealth to the British elite. On the other hand, the working class was being displaced by new machines, and many lived in dreadful conditions. There was a hopeful spirit that knowledge, scientific discovery and new technologies would liberate minds and improve lives, but there was also despair on the part of many who felt they had no opportunity to participate in that better future.

Today, the same great contradiction is being played out on a global and local scale. In the techno-utopia of (some parts of) San Francisco and Silicon Valley, we are endlessly optimistic about the coming abundance of computing, energy and health.

A few miles away, across a bridge, is Oakland, where I am having a very different experience this weekend. Nearly 100 people gathered to participate in a Startup Weekend EDU event. A Startup Weekend is a 54-hour event where people and teams come together to create a new idea, project or company.

The elementary school we were at tells quite the opposite story from the story told just on the other side of the Bay. Driving into the parking lot, I was confronted by an entire section of the lot fenced off for the police department. Half a dozen police vehicles and what looked like a bullet-proof truck (like those used to transport cash) sat idle right outside of the school on this weekend.

Inside the building itself was a staircase that had been marked off-limits to students and visitors and was used by the Oakland School Police Department. Call me naive, but that was the first time I’ve ever heard of a police department just dedicated to a school (district).

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All the backdrop of the weekend didn’t stop enthusiastic people from engaging on the topic of education innovation. Over thirty people stood in front of a full gymnasium crowd to pitch their ideas with the hopes of being selected as one of the top ideas for the weekend.

After a round of discussion, the top dozen or so ideas are selected and teams form around the “founders” of those ideas. For the next two straight days, these several dozens of people on 13 different project teams design, program and present their education startup to their peers, mentors and a panel of judges.

Our team embarked on a plan to bring design thinking into schools to help students and teachers experience a curriculum with more critical thinking rather than memorization and repetition.

I think the people who decided to come to this weekend’s event have the belief that education is one of the most impactful ways to address our societal imbalance. Education is the great equalizer, but it hasn’t reached people in an equal way. Our collective goal is to let it reach more people who haven’t had as much luck in life as many of us have had.

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All of the teams’ hard work comes to a climax on Sunday evening as we present in front of a panel of judges with bragging rights and prizes on the line, and the possibility to make the ideas into reality.

I’m excited to see the presentations and can’t wait to hear what these innovators came up with from a weekend of jam-packed brainstorming and work. Innovators are the ones on the front-lines making the world a better place and I’m confident we will see that in happen in education in a major way.

Postscript. And the winners were:

1st place: Rock Your Voice, which is an app to record English speech to help long-term English learners to improve their spoken English and to track progress.

2nd place: Catch, which helps parents engage with their students through fun games.

We won 3rd place: designED, which brings design thinking to schools through workshops for teachers via professional development and online design thinking challenges.

p.s. Our team’s presentation is here.

Our team from left to right: me, Victoria, our fearless leader Chloe, Michelle, and Jeremy
Our team from left to right: me, Victoria, our fearless leader Chloe, Michelle, and Jeremy

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  • annmariastat

    Liked your post but I wish you’d talked a little more about how you intend to work with the schools and overcome some of the issues that necessitate that police presence. Maybe your next post?