Part 1: Getting Focused with Charter School Leaders for STEM Education

Alvarez Spark Innovation Award recipient Todd Wackerman is an MBA student at Tulane’s Freeman School.  To validate assumptions about his proposed nonprofit, Todd conducted a series of design-thinking interviews and focus groups with stakeholders.

The Science Teachers’ Equipment Lending Library (STELL) began with a good idea.  From 6 years teaching STEM subjects in high schools, I realized that one of the biggest challenges to improving teaching and learning might also be one of the easiest to solve.  By ensuring that schools have access to equipment and lesson planning resources, we can improve the quality of instruction that teachers are putting in front of students. This will help them become more excited about science, and better prepared for testing and general problem solving.

But over the last few months, we discovered that if you want to turn your good idea into a reality, you have to be able to prove it to people.  In my imagination, this process was expensive, and our minimum viable product was a highly involved, highly structured pilot program pairing schools together for short term proof that customers existed.  Through Changemaker Institute, I discovered that this was not the most efficient way to proceed, and you really can accomplish a lot without much money, simply by asking for help.  Months of design-based research followed, interviewing teachers and analog facilities to shape and grow our proposal into something we knew teachers wanted.  Finally the time came in March to validate that not only was STELL something people wanted, but that someone would actually pay for it.  And that step, finally required money.  For food, of course.  If you want school leaders and CFO’s to give you their time, it turns out you need to feed them.  That is a lesson I should have extrapolated, from six years of teaching high schoolers.

The idea to hold a focus group idea began in December, but it did not take shape until March, because there was so much leg work to occur first.  I had no idea at the time how much work had to occur before I was ready to ask school leaders and network CFOs to sit down and give up their time.  But it was a lot.  STELL was an idea, not yet tangible.  There was no value proposition; I don’t think I knew the term value proposition until January or February, and now it might be my most frequently spoken phrase.

Through the Changemaker Institute, introduced me to human-centered design research for our teacher interviews and analog facility research, but focus groups are a new skill for me.  In giving the award, the Taylor Center ensured that I was ready, setting me up with Dr. Alessandra Bazzano and Keith Crawford, expert mentors in the field able to ensure that my process would be compelling and productive for all participants.  Simply getting people in the room was the next step, and far more labor intensive than I would have imagined.  Days full of hours of phone calls and emails later, we had our participant list, our questions list, and our understanding of exactly what we needed to learn from them.

The day arrived. After 80 minutes of structured, efficient conversation and pizza, we had answers to our questions.  We know where school leaders have concerns about STELL (borrowing expectations, transportation, consumables), must-haves and deal-breakers in the value proposition (standards aligned lesson planning, safety, lab management skill development), and we have a price point.

This has been an excellent experience for my professional growth, and also for the growth of the Science Teachers’ Equipment Lending Library.  There was no one overarching philosophical takeaway, but the big development is that with answers to some of our crucial pivot point questions, we are now poised to write a Memorandum of Understanding.  This MoU will allow us to validate in writing that customers exist, and which we can bring to potential funders as quantitative proof of concept.  As STELL continues to take shape over the summer months, we have our deliverables and tasks cut out for us, and thanks to the Alvarez Catalyst award, we are very appropriately invigorated to continue to grow.