From the Classroom to the Community: A Student’s Journey post-Solving Public Problems Using Technology

By: Laura E. Patterson

Like many Millennials, I’ve always had an interest in creating a project that I believed could change the world in some small way. After graduation from undergrad, I accidentally ended up building a career in education, a field that I had an interest in, but I had always seen as a hobby, not a vocation. Several years later, I felt like I had a solid grasp of the education landscape and realized that there is a lot of room to make an impact along the fringes of the space, to make the lives of students and teachers better and I wanted a structured way to decide how I could define a problem and take it beyond the idea stage. I ended up hearing about GovLab’s class Solving Public Problems Using Technology through a listserv of which I was a part, and now the idea that I designed in that class is being turned into a working product at a new hackathon for female entrepreneurs, Monarq’s She Hacks.

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When I first stepped into SPPT, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do; I had decided that I would build something to mitigate the achievement gap (and in one email I sent out about it, claimed that I wanted to ‘solve education’–a charge that felt great to type out and made no sense when applied to the real world). After a few lectures on problem definition and incredible leadership from the faculty, I decided that I wanted to work to help ease the transition between high school and college for low-income students. I conducting five interviews with professionals working at high schools, colleges and NGOs in the space but with each interview I lost clarity, instead of gaining it. I wanted to focus on incoming community college students, but then I didn’t. I wanted to focus on low-income students who were planning on going to elite universities, but I couldn’t figure out the specific problem I wanted to solve for. Early on in SPPT, we learned that jumping to solutions too quickly is not going to allow for deep impact. I also learned that knowing who you want to solve for is not enough; it is important to understand as much of that community’s experience as you can. I knew little about the students I wanted to serve even after the numerous conversations I had and I wasn’t able to clearly articulate their needs.

I ended up switching to a problem area that I was much more comfortable with, the problem of scaling edtech. At the end of the class, I had a concept that I was proud of, because I learned that making a pivot was entirely permissible and necessary in order to design something with impact. The new focus also forced me to get serious about building outside support for the idea. Asking for insight from strangers was one thing, but it was entirely different to present something that I’d developed and believed in and get feedback on it. In order to get validation, I had to be something that we were taught was essential in the solution development process–vulnerable–even though I was extremely uncomfortable with it. Reflecting on the class, it was perhaps the most important lesson I learned from it.

In the spirit of that learning, weeks after the class, I came across She Hacks in one of the tech newsletters I subscribe to. I had met with I had meet with SPPT faculty a few times after the class ended to think through various aspects of the concept and felt that I had developed a concrete enough concept to take it to the next level and decided to apply. I was terrified to share the idea with the world, but the hackathon’s founders quickly got back to me saying that I was selected as one of the seven entrepreneurs to participate in the event. Last week, I received my team assignment. My team and I will be spending the weekend of April 24th building a working prototype based largely off of the final deliverables I created in SPPT. If you are looking for a class that will help you think more deeply and practically about a problem you’d like to solve for, I encourage you to check out SPPT and GovLab’s other course offerings. Through the class, I learned how to better articulate a problem, communicate my ideas and generate support. The class pushed me to develop skills outside of the classroom; I improved my qualitative research skills and learned how to build a clickable prototype and shoot a product screencast for the final deliverables. Now, with the learnings and the artifacts from the class, I will be building a product that I think could potentially alter how edtech companies reach educators. Wish me luck!

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