Changing the world one empowered student at a time

Issue: Volume 94, Number 19

Posted: 27 October 2015
Reference #: 1H9cux

The creators of the Drawing Board Challenge, a 10-week workshop programme culminating in a competitive challenge, seek to do no less than teach students how to change the world.

Madeline King and Emily Mabin Sutton – two young women at the cutting edge of tech and science – are far more than self-help gurus though: they’re motivated to help young people understand their inherent power to affect change – and the tools to realise that power – they wish they’d been afforded as even younger women. Education Gazette talks to Madeline about making time for giving back.

Madeline King has had a varied career to date, much of which has been in the service of justice and development. So it’s no surprise that now she’s moved into a field that’s more personally lucrative than it must be assumed her volunteer past has been, she’s compelled to help students gain the confidence to stare down the world’s bigger issues, break them up into manageable chunks, and get busy creating a better world.

Before moving into the technology sector a couple of years ago, Madeline spent her time helping those that rely on the energy of passionate volunteers to exploit modern communication, a service for which the private operator charges eye-watering sums to those of less humanitarian intent.

Armed with an Auckland University master’s degree in media studies, with a specialist focus on inequality and power, Madeline has worked with the likes of Beyond Violence, as campaign director while living in Columbia. The role involved “using tech tools to get the perspectives of ordinary people in conflicts, and using these resources to amplify their story,” a job she wanted because, she says, “it’s rare that the global audience hears the story of those in the middle.”

As a further testament to Madeline’s commitment to helping young people see that the world they live in is not one they just have to settle for, she’s also been national operations manager for JustSpeak, a network of young people passionate about “speaking to, and speaking up for a new generation of thinkers,” on issues that plague our justice system, like the over-representation of Māori in the New Zealand criminal system.

Her first foray into the world of technology came two years ago, when she started working for TouchTech. A cursory examination of the TouchTech website’s ‘about’ page confirms that helping others empower themselves is fundamental to the life mission that Madeline has chosen for herself. Though the company has a bottom line to think of, they also want to promote positive community outcomes: founded by a group of software developers who wanted to strike out on their own, one of TouchTech’s business strands involves embracing the ideas of start-up dreamers with an app in their head but nothing in their pocket; those that banks are notoriously reluctant to entertain in other words. Driven by a determination to prevent the next big software/app/web/mobile thing dying on the drawing board, Madeline leads business development and marketing; the “other stuff,” in her words.

“Everyone here is a software developer; I do everything else basically! We want to help people who want to create a business from an app or similar, with business ideas as well as the development of the software itself. It’s a chance for me to learn heaps about business and technology, which has been fantastic.”

The Drawing Board Challenge has recently wrapped up a pilot programme with a group of young women from Samuel Marsden Collegiate; Madeline is quick to point out though, lest anyone assume, that the vision is to provide a programme of empowerment for all young people from every back ground.

“It’s about teaching students how to change the world while engaging them in tech and entrepreneurial thinking. The underlying idea is that tech and business ideas are really powerful tools for creating change, and will become more so.

“For young people, these big huge issues, like global warming for example, can seem overwhelming, and impossible to deal with. This can be a real source of disempowerment. But by breaking it down into chunks, working on that chunk, solving that small problem within a much larger problem, we believe we’re helping young people to think about the world they live in, while nurturing their grasp of business thinking, and hopefully employing that know-how toward changing the world they live in for the better.”

So it’s not just a get-together of activists and slogans decrying the state of the world then. Idealism actuated by pragmatism is a concept Madeline hopes Drawing Board Challenge participants take to heart.

“Both Emily [Drawing Board Challenge co-founder] and I have backgrounds in social campaigning and the entrepreneurial start-up environment. We felt that we were in quite a unique position, in that we bridge both those worlds. In getting Drawing Board Challenge off the ground, we’ve learnt so much about how to make an impact, how to create social change, and the most effective means of doing so. We just thought that our learning curve was really useful, powerful stuff, which we could share with younger people. We thought it would be really wonderful if we could help them have an impact in their own communities.”

The theory

Madeline succinctly outlines the Drawing Board Process:

“Once a problem has been identified, it’s about talking to those affected by the problem; asking them what they think the best solution is; thinking about one’s own ideas, testing those ideas, getting feedback from the market; evaluating, and iterating. All of these process ideas can help address any problem.

“After you’ve done that, it’s about measurement of results and impact – which is also really important in business thinking. Then you can start thinking about how you could go about scaling a solution up.”

Let's workshop

Before these brave young drivers of change can get busy ridding the world of injustice, or just irritatingly protrusive steps (we’ll come back to that), a series of ten workshops run by Madeline and Emily seek to ground students in the fundamentals of business thinking.

In the first lesson, students are encouraged to think about something in their world that bugs them; things around them that they consider need fixing. ‘No idea is a bad idea, none too big or small’, is the message at this stage of the programme. This elicits a surprising depth of response from young minds, says Madeline.

“It’s really interesting actually. Ideas ranged from the global – climate change was a huge one, pollution – mental illness was another issue that kept coming up. Right down to the very local; so things like a step at the school library that everybody trips on: the students couldn’t believe that nobody had yet fixed it.”

As mentioned, the initial pilot was held at Samuel Marsden College for Girls, so lots of ideas reflected the demographic, says Madeline, concerning pressures that young women particularly feel in their daily lives.

“This was a class of 15 year old young women, so lots of things like media pressure, appearance pressure, body image and things like that were discussed a lot.”

After brainstorming a huge list, the group moved onto the research phase. A key concept here was to compile the impressions of those affected by a particular problem, aside from more familiar research methods like trawling the internet. It was then time to give free reign to fertile imaginations, says Madeline – again, no idea is a bad idea. Cost, skill level, the laws of physics: the girls were told none of these should be considered reason to leave an idea off the whiteboard.

“After we’d compiled a huge list, we said ‘right, do some research: speak to some people who are affected by this issue, then come back with 20 crazy, wild, solutions.

“The library step, for example, that brought forth all kinds of wacky approaches: ‘bulldoze the whole school’! ‘Invent a contraption that can instantly pop up and deploy a staircase on top of the old staircase whenever someone steps on it’! Or it could just be ‘put a cushion over the crack’.”

Students were then asked to apply a bit of rationality in deciding which ideas were doable. So within one lesson, says Madeline, students came up with an instant solution to a problem in their world.

Failure isn't just an option: it's required

Of course, one of the best ways to cement in the minds of the less experienced the idea that anyone can change their world is to have someone talk to them who’s ‘been there, done that.’

Guests included Anna Guenther, co-founder of PledgeMe; Marianne Elliott, ethical restaurant owner, campaign manager and former UN human rights lawyer, who talked to the class about making an impact.

Kimberley Collins, science communicator, discussed marketing techniques. Jennifer O’Sullivan, improviser and producer, taught resilience to failure, and Caitlin Miller and Gisela de la Villa are computer programmers that helped with the build-a-website lesson.

The group role-played a number of scenarios across several sessions, to teach the concept of learning to celebrate failure, as a means of focusing on a feasible solution by trial and error. Madeline explains.

“We took traditional games where the player loses points for making a mistake, and adapted them so that when students made mistakes everyone celebrated or they were rewarded. This was really useful for instilling the idea that failure can be a positive thing, as it made it fun and entertaining, and everyone had to do it at some point.

“The students took this on board and when they experienced failures later in the programme, like if their plans didn’t work out as well as they hoped, they’d do a little celebration and get back to the drawing board to come up with a better idea. The point was to show that failure is incredibly useful if you learn from it.”

Execution time

Over the latter half of the workshop programme, students sorted themselves into groups, around a problem and a solution they wanted to pursue. These groups then worked through the process that would see their ideas become reality, underpinning everything they did using the precepts of business-oriented thinking.

There was an element of competition to the programme, in keeping with the business paradigm. The culmination of the programme was a grand pitch night, at which the girls were to sell their ideas to a panel of experts, again drawn from a pool of business leaders, including: Anna Guenther; Sarah Gibbs, co-founder of Trilogy; Oliviah Theyers-Collins from VentureUp and CreativeHQ; and Rowena Joe from Xero. The judges responded to each team’s pitch with target feedback based on their business experience.

Many of the ideas students elected to pursue had an altruistic flavour to them, reports Madeline. One team decided on the elegantly simple idea of procuring cheap candles, applying a ‘candles for cure’ branding, and selling them at profit. Proceeds were then handed over to CanTeen.

The winning group – who named themselves ‘The Winter Project’ – started at the highest level possible: they wanted to tackle some aspect of the economic inequality that they saw around them. Lots of possible angles were put forward, and the group became drawn to the problem of scarce housing, something that’s been ever-present in media of late. They then focused their attention (‘drilled down’ as those in the business world might have it) even further, to an examination of the notion that sub-standard housing can be directly responsible for adverse health implication in tenants of straightened means.

TWP then hit footpaths around the Wellington neighbourhood of Karori, and talked to whoever would share, in an effort to understand their problems.

Of course, sub-standard housing can be most directly be addressed by making it less sub-standard; a solution clearly out of the reach of the group, at least for now. So they moved laterally, and decided that they were better off mitigating the effects of poverty and sub-standard housing by collecting items that could be useful to the unfortunate.

The group created several branded collection bins which they placed strategically around the community, and supplemented their efforts by raising $500 through a sausage sizzle: the funds were used to buy warm clothing.

Madeline says that setting and striving for targets was a key learning that she wanted to pass on to the students.

“We get them to think about targets they should be hitting: theirs was ‘100 warm Wellingtonians by the end of the 10-week programme.

“They ended up collecting enough warm woollen clothing for 171 Wellingtonians, so they completely overshot their target which was fantastic.

“They did a lot of promotion work as well, so they got into the local newspaper, advertised on the school intranet, and things like that.”

The culmination of the programme is a grand pitch night, where teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. They talk about the problem they’ve identified, the solution they came up with, and the impact they feel they’ve already had, as well as their plans in terms of scaling the solution.

The judges – who are, again, prominent business leaders – judge the ideas based on their possibility for real-world deployment.

Factbox: The drawing board challenge

The aims of the Drawing Board Challenge are to:

  • Teach entrepreneurial thinking: ‘hustle’; resilience; critical thinking, and scaling up through tech
  • Empower young people to change the world, and
  • Increase diversity in the innovation sector.
  • To do this Madeline and Emily have rebranded tech and business thinking as key skills in changing the world. The lessons are therefore shaped around key skills that are taught to the students in order to refine their social ideas and improve their impact

Skills include:

  • Market research
  • Critical thinking
  • Implementation (or hustle)
  • Testing, validation & iteration
  • Resilience and risk minimisation
  • Planning
  • Sales, pitching & marketing
  • Tech tools for growth
  • Defining and measuring outcomes
  • Strategy, sustainability & scale
  • Delegation, teamwork & project management

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 6:00 am, 27 October 2015

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