Summer Launchpad 2018 Series: Changing Computer Science Education

This week, we talked to two teams in the 2018 cohort of Summer Launchpad who are disrupting computer science education, to learn about some of the challenges in trying to innovate in this industry where change can often happen slowly.

Peblio is an instructional tool that helps high school computer science teachers save time, build confidence, and teach 21st century skills to prepare students to succeed in the digital age.

About the team

Esther Hersh (Tisch '17) and Mathura Govindarajan (Tisch '17) met when they were both studying at ITP. Esther works with the Software Engineering Program at the NYC Department of Education on curricula and professional development, and was an assistant Computer Science teacher in Bronx Public Schools. Mathura worked as a research resident building accessibility tools for developers and previously taught at an LES girls school as an engineering teacher. What originally started as a thesis project turned into Peblio when the pair joined up with their third cofounder, Regina Vetka (Tisch ‘17).

NYU Entrepreneurial Institute: What has been the biggest challenge in entering the field of education?
Peblio: High School administrations have a lot of stakeholders and decision makers who need to sign off on new products, and in our case the purchaser (admin) and the user (teacher) are not the same person. Additionally, student privacy is an important issue, and every company that handles student data has to make sure that it’s protected.

The Institute: What are the biggest trends or changes happening in CS education?
Peblio: Since 2013, 35 new states have changed state policies to support computer science, and about 40% of schools now provide access to computer science education. That’s a massive change to happen in 5 years, and although there’s a lot of effort and funding dedicated to improving access to CS education, many teachers are struggling to catch up. Today, many CS teachers come from Math and Science teaching backgrounds, but don’t necessarily have engineering experience. That said, it’s easier to train a teacher in computer science than to train an engineer to teach effectively.

The Institute: What's a major accomplishment you're most proud of?
Peblio: We started working on Peblio last year, and only went full time this summer when we joined SLP. We’re already pilot testing in our first class in a public High School in NY with 25 students, and have been testing solutions throughout the year with teachers. To date, we have interviewed 40 teachers, and are actively working with 5 of them to continue to iterate on our product.

NextGen Bootcamp offers in person computer science education  tailored to high school students to prepare them for the AP test and help them place out of college courses.

About the team

CEO Zach Cohen (Gallatin ‘21) started his first business when he was 9 years old when he would go around to his neighbor’s garages, negotiate revenue share agreements with them, and resell their items on eBay for them. He even hired a few kids as employees to help him find items to sell. Eli Vovsha, Head of Education, taught math and computer science at Columbia University and previously cofounded an edtech startup called KnewWaves. Isaac Weinstock, who recently joined the team, has been friends with Zach since they were 6 years old, and is studying finance at Baruch College.

The Institute: What has been the biggest challenge in entering the field of education?
NextGen: Gaining trust with parents and students. There are plenty of other options to learn computer science and it has been important to have an experienced and credible teaching team to differentiate ourselves and justify to parents why they should have their son or daughter spend these 8 weeks with us. To solve for this we stress our best in class student to teacher ratio, and focus on making sure our students place into internships and score well on their AP tests.

Initially, we were met with resistance when asking schools to share information about our program with their students, but we’ve seen that even one such partnership can result in 3 to 4 new students signing up for our program.

The Institute: What are the biggest trends or changes happening in CS education?
NextGen: Demand for CS education is trending younger and younger. In the past, even seeing computer science at the High School level was rare, but now many parents are asking, is my 10 year old old enough to start learning programming?

The other major trend is that instead of focusing on fundamental languages like Java and C++, now it’s about learning a high level language like Python that’s specific to a task like web design. We teach the languages and tools that are most relevant to the type of technology that the student is most interested in creating.

The Institute: What's a major accomplishment you're most proud of?
NextGen: I [Zach] worked as a personal trainer at NYU to fund this business on a very small budget in the single digit thousands, and found that while most people think they need hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment to start a business, it’s possible to start lean at first. I wanted to be debt free to prove the concept out, and we were able to get to $125K in revenue in our first year of operation.