During the past four months, I was part of something incredible – the 2012 Technovation Challenge! This national program pairs small groups of high school girls with women mentors within the technology industry, with the aim of inspiring girls to become entrepreneurs and see themselves as creators of technology.

Each Wednesday evening for ten weeks, we met at Twitter (one of several sponsor sites in the Bay Area) to learn about business and entrepreneurship and develop hands-on expertise by building an actual Android app. In between our Wednesday meetings, the students worked with their high school teacher to learn how to program apps using the Android App Inventor programming environment (created by Google, now hosted by MIT ). Technovation Challenge itself is set up a competition, with the winning team awarded $15,000 to develop their app idea.

At the beginning of the course, the girls brainstormed and sketched ideas for apps, and tested these works-in-progress on teachers and fellow students. During the middle weeks they moved to creating a viable business plan and a working prototype of their app. The last three weeks were a blur of polishing the app prototype, business plan, and their pitch presentation.


Team Froggy Cut

My students hailed from June Jordan School for Equity, a small public school in the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco. On meeting my students – Alexis, Jaleesa, Jessica, and Karina – during the first week, I was immediately impressed by their spirit! Each one of them is a smart, confident, practical young woman who wasn’t afraid to jump in and learn about these new topics, troubleshoot programming problems, and ask really good questions.

Team “Froggy Cut” was actually one of two Technovation Challenge teams from June Jordan high school, both coached by their phenomenal science teacher, Glen Botha. Not only is Glen an engaging teacher, he recently developed a successful Android App of his own, called Teacher Aide Pro. My co-mentor, Jennifer Arguello, is a Product Manager at Mozilla Corporation, and had participated in Technovation Challenge the year before. Each of us helped the team focus on a specific portion of the project – from idea and design, to app programming, to honing the pitch presentation.


The Froggy Cut App

The “killer app” that my team came up with was actually a way of avoiding killing – of frogs, that is! They designed an app that would teach high school biology students how to do dissections, as well as learn the proper use of lab tools (scalpel, scissors, pins). In addition to being a supplement to a regular dissection, Froggy Cut could also be used as an alternative for those who don’t want to dissect a real animal, or who don’t have the resources to do so. The prototype included the start of a frog dissection, but the girls had plans for expanding to other animals in future versions.

The app prototype that they created was functional as well as entertaining to play. Basically, you have to drag the appropriate tool to the frog in order to perform the next step in the dissection. If you get it right, the app notes, in a clipped British accent, that you’ve done quite well. Congratulations! If you should mess up, however, a buzzer sounds and the voice sternly notes why your approach won’t work.

(To try out Froggy Cut for yourself, download the Android app. Note that you must allow apps to be downloaded from unknown sources, under “Settings → Applications”.)


Pitch Night!

Technovation Challenge culminates in Regional Pitch Night – a formal setting for each team to pitch their app ideas to real live venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs. For the Twitter regional pitch event, Team Froggy Cut went up against the other seven Twitter teams … and won!!

The judges cited three aspects of the Froggy Cut app that they particularly liked:

  • The possibility for expanding to international markets (where educational supplies are difficult to come by)
  • The fact that the app saves schools money
  • The fantastic, functioning app the students created that gave a great sense of the product

After winning the Regional Pitch Event, it was on to National Pitch Night where they would compete against the winners of the other sites. Though they didn’t place in the top three, they did really well and, and were singled out for praise by a writer from the San Jose Mercury News. They can also be seen in the front row of students in this CNBC video clip following the National event.


Technovation Challenge

Though the program is only three years old, it’s already growing by leaps and bounds – from 45 Bay Area students and 25 mentors participating in the spring of 2010 to over 500 hundred students and mentors participating this year at eight sites across the country! Mentors are drawn from the ranks of local programmers, designers, product managers, user researchers, entrepreneurs, researchers, instructors, and venture capitalists.

One of the reasons I’m quite keen to be a mentor for programs in science and technology is to help encourage the next generation of technologists, so they too realize that people “like them” can be creators of technology. I’ve been so lucky to have mentors give me their time and advice, and I’d like to do the same. In addition, as mobile devices are taking off in popularity, “app developer” is a hot new career path, and we need creative new minds in this space!


Want to join Technovation Challenge 2013?

The application for Spring 2013 is coming soon. In the meantime, feel free to email Annalise Hoopes (annalise@iridescentlearning.org) if you’re interested in mentoring.

Giving Back at AnswerLab

Our mission at AnswerLab is to improve the digital world. Thinking broadly, this includes insuring that the next generation is as enthusiastic and creative about technology as we are, and that as many as possible participate. It’s unfortunate that many women don’t think the technology field (or business) is for them. As a Forbes write up about Technovation Challenge noted, “While women make 47% of the U.S. workforce, only 5% of startups are owned by women. In 2010, only 2.4% of the U.S. Fortune 500 chief executives were female.” AnswerLab’s own co-founder, Amy Buckner Chowdhry, is one of those pioneering technology entrepreneurs. With the help of programs like Technovation Challenge, we hope that this number will continue to grow!