CoLaunch

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Entrepreneurship – especially in STEM-related industries – is dominated by men, and bringing more diverse voices into this space is crucial. To address this challenge, we have developed CoLaunch, a community-centered summer program for children between 8th and 9th grade. CoLaunch gives boys and girls a structured space to collaborate, innovate, and connect with role models from businesses in their area and nationwide.

Our goal is to pave the way for more women to get involved in start-ups and for both men and women to value collaboration across gender lines. The preliminary research we conducted (as well as insights from our team member Alethea, who has taught 6th grade) indicated that to instill these values, we should start young. By the time students are well into their teens, their ideas about what they are and are not capable of tend to be more fixed, and it becomes more difficult to reach those who don’t see themselves as potential entrepreneurs. While it’s certainly not too late, we felt we could achieve greater impact by focusing on middle school: specifically, the crucial transition point between middle school and high school.

We grounded our design process in a specific context – the Gardner Public School District, in Central Massachusetts – in order to better consider the factors affecting potential participants and the community around them. The town of Gardner (pop. 20,228) has a median household income of $46,589, well below the state’s median household income of $67,846. Within the district, 43.1% of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, compared to a statewide average of 26.3%.

A teacher in Gardner who spoke with us explained that her school currently doesn’t have any entrepreneurship-oriented courses, but there’s an effort to bring more of those opportunities to students. She noted that many students are disengaged in school and struggle to develop strong social skills. Different types of digital media, including social media, photography, and video games, are popular among students and could help draw them into a program like ours. Students often do not travel outside of the Gardner region, so opportunities for field trips and visiting new places could be very appealing. The five-year high school graduation rate is 76.4% (compared to 87.7% statewide), and those who graduate from high school often do not continue on to four-year colleges, though many attend a nearby community college.

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Insights from this conversation and from our background research of Gardner guided us in the design of the CoLaunch elements. Given the context, it’s important that CoLaunch be free of charge so that it is accessible to all who could benefit from it, and our goal is to partner with businesses to support this endeavor. We looked for ways to expose students to places, ideas, and career pathways they would not otherwise encounter in their education. Since students at this age are working toward developing their own identities and defining who they are, CoLaunch allows for individual interests to shape students’ learning experiences. CoLaunch also incorporates opportunities for students to express their ideas through digital media, empowering them to use these tools creatively rather than act as passive consumers.

CoLaunch runs for two four-week sessions each summer, allowing two different cohorts of students to participate each year. Each day of the program closes with students creating a short blog or vlog reflecting on their learning. These are posted to the CoLaunch website, where other young people who are not participating in the program can get a taste of the experience and interact with participants. Highlights of presentations from guests and takeaways from students’ innovative explorations can thus extend beyond the physical CoLaunch community.

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During Week 1, participants spend their mornings getting an introduction to entrepreneurship and the tools they can use to help them express their ideas. They go over simple business plans, market research, and budgeting, and they learn to use photo and video editing software. These activities are supplemented by visits (physical or virtual) from entrepreneurs who can share their own successes, failures, and lessons learned. Guest entrepreneurs, primarily working in STEM fields, represent a wide range of backgrounds and include many women, giving girls in the class visible role models to whom they can relate.

In the afternoons of Week 1, participants complete a series of one-day design challenges in pairs, working with a new partner each day. Pairs are male-female to the extent possible. While middle school can be a challenging time for boys and girls to relate to each other, it also represents an opportunity to set positive habits of working together in a respectful way and valuing each other’s contributions. The design challenges incorporate skills from the morning activities (e.g. graphic design or drafting a simple business plan) but are rooted in real-world situations in the community. This helps the challenges feel relevant to the students. Based on this article, which suggests that intense competition between teams “results in greater creative output from men, but causes women to shut down and contribute less,” these challenges are more collaborative than competitive in nature. The emphasis is on taking risks and using inevitable failures or flaws in the designs as learning opportunities. Pairs share their creations with other pairs at the end of the activity, giving each other feedback.

The first three Fridays of the program are devoted to field trips that give students an inside look at start-ups in their region. Week 1 is focused locally, with students visiting small businesses in their town and surrounding areas. Weeks 2 and 3 take them further afield to Boston, a little over an hour’s drive away. In Boston, students visit a wide range of STEM-related businesses as well as an innovation center such as Harvard’s iLab, which provides an opportunity for them to chat with college students about their ventures. This kind of exposure shows that entrepreneurship can flourish in a variety of settings, including higher education. For students who have had few opportunities to travel outside of their hometown, the trips to Boston start-ups may broaden their imaginations and their sense of what they can achieve. The visits, featuring discussions with successful female and male entrepreneurs, help to dispel the stereotype of a start-up culture that is uniformly unfriendly to women.

Weeks 2-4 are devoted to a sustained group
project
. On Monday of Week 2, the project is introduced: entrepreneurs share challenges in their industries and ask students to design an innovative solution. Students rank the top three topics they’d like to work on and are placed into mixed-gender groups to tackle the challenges of interest to them. Over the next three weeks, they move through a design thinking process together, completing research (including interviews with potential users), ideation, testing, and prototyping. The Friday field trips give students a break in the routine each week. Where possible, those visits give students ideas and inspiration for the project work they’ll be taking on during the following week. On the final Friday of the program, an expo gives participants a chance to share their progress and celebrate with members of the community and, where possible, entrepreneurs they’ve met along the way.

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