Like one or two other well-known tech wizards, Michael Dell began building his vision for an innovative computer company from a college dorm room, when he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Supporting that spirit of entrepreneurship among young people, Dell, Inc. is now awarding grants to student innovators whose projects aid education in and out of the classroom.
“Every company starts with a great idea,” says Michele Glaze, Strategic Giving and Employee Engagement Manager at Dell. “We believe that students have this wonderful voice when it comes to changing the world.”
With that in mind, Dell last month announced the winners of its Dell Education Challenge, an international competition recognizing projects that support learning issues among K-12 students. From the 400 project submissions, Dell employees selected one winner, awarded $10,000, along with three finalists who will be entered into the 2013 Dell Social Innovation Challenge, whose entrants compete for more than $350,000 in cash prizes and other awards. Seven additional Dell Education Challenge “Promising Projects” received $1,000 each.
The winning endeavor, Forward Tutoring, started in 2010 as the brainchild of seven teenagers at the Newman Smith High School in Carrollton, Texas. Through its online platform, Forward Tutoring allows students to earn credits by volunteering in their communities, and then applying those credits toward one-on-one online tutoring sessions with other qualified students. Those volunteer tutors can themselves earn scholarships and internships from supporting organizations.
“Students don’t like to volunteer if they’re not passionate about the issues they’re volunteering for,” says JJ Echaniz, one of Forward Tutoring’s founders who is now a freshman at Yale. But Echaniz said that a survey among north Texas schools showed that “given the right opportunity that matches a student’s interest, 96 percent of students said they would go out and volunteer.”
Echaniz and his classmates harnessed that volunteering potential to create “an ecosystem where students pay it forward,” he says, creating a win-win situation in which kids’ community efforts also help them academically.
The Forward Tutoring team also strived to make tutoring fun. “Other tutoring programs are very impersonal,” says Echaniz. With Forward Tutoring, “the idea is that you’re speaking with someone your age. The advantage is that if students can relate to the tutor, it’s so much easier to learn.” Becoming an FT tutor is actually competitive, Echaniz notes, since interested high schoolers who are academically gifted still must pass a qualification process. Echaniz adds that the organization is creating college chapters, including ones at Yale, The UT Austin, and the University of California at Berkeley, schools that other Forward Tutoring founders are attending.
The Dell Education Challenge second-place winner is the Gyan Knowledge Lab, an organization that sets up hands-on learning labs for students in India, with the goal of keeping kids engaged in education—and in school.
“There’s not a lot of hands-on learning in India,” says Glaze. Without that, it can be hard for students to stay academically stimulated and many drop out. “In the U. S., you’re going to get out the beakers during science class, but that doesn’t necessarily happen in India,” she explains. “This project focuses on constructive learning.”
Another finalist is e-Education for Gaza, which provides support for children with learning difficulties in Gaza by providing videos with which teachers can connect with educational experts in their field. The third finalist, Next Step Leaders, is a leadership development training program for educators that provides personalizes assessments, group leadership training, and one-on-one coaching.
According to the company, the Dell Education Challenge expands the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, the world’s largest platform to support student innovators. It is managed by UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.