"When you put the questions to the kids, A) They become more active participants, versus just passively trying to absorb the information. B) is, if you don't know the answer, it's actually cool. You can put the burden on them to ask the questions, then say, "Hey, you know what? I don't really know." Or, "Let's see." You don't even have to say that you don't know. It's like, “Let's see. Let's try it out; let's test it. We can find it out through this experiment.” -Vicky Wu-Davis
Meet Vicky Wu-Davis, videogame designer and entrepreneur. In this transcript of a live webinar chat with KnowAtom CEO Francis Vigeant, you'll hear about:
- The connection between critical thinking skills, entrepreneurship and STEM
- How Vicky's degree in accounting turned into a software company in 2000 that provides technology for social games and virtual worlds
- How these skills and experiences fueled her passion to co-found International Orphans Foundation and Youth CITIES
Francis Vigeant: Hi, and thank you for joining us for this session on the path to innovation. My name's Francis Vigeant. I'm CEO here at KnowAtom, and I'm glad to be able to bring a new voice to the table today with Vicky Wu-Davis.
Before we get into that, I wanted to let you know why we are interested in speaking with innovators in the first place. The answer to that really has to do with the role of STEM in K-12 education, especially as we think about the Next Generation Science Standards, and the movement towards performance-based teaching, learning, and assessment. The reason I mention this is that those critical thinking skills, the creative and analytical-thinking skills, are something that at least we here at KnowAtom believe are vital to any college or career choice, regardless of whether somebody becomes a scientist or engineer.
We also believe that by putting students in the role of scientist and engineer in the classroom, by giving them that experience, through the Next Generation Science Standards and these performance expectations, we have an opportunity to develop those thinking skills and actually give students an opportunity, or a taste, of what it's like to be a scientist, an engineer. That's really where these two come together. I think as part of this national conversation that is developing — that the idea that innovation is key to our future, and that innovation takes many forms.
Very few people have insight on what exactly is the 'stuff' or the properties of innovation. That brings us to these discussions, and so I'd like to introduce our special guest, Vicky Wu-Davis, executive director of YouthCITIES. Vicky, leaving the corporate world in her late 20s to become an entrepreneur, says she's never looked back. She started a software company in the video game industry and ran it for over ten years before deciding to teach innovation and entrepreneurship to middle school and high school kids through her non-profit YouthCITIES.
Vicky's also a mentor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT's Venture Mentor Services, and she's a member of an investment community called Beacon Angels. Vicky has been recognized numerous times in the area of entrepreneurship, such as Red Herring's cover story, "Young Moguls: Twenty Outstanding Entrepreneurs Under Thirty-Five," the Kauffman Foundation's "Entrepreneurs Giving It Back" recognition, and the 2004 Boston Business Journal's "Forty Under 40", and in 2015, she was Women Op's honoree as a local woman of influence.
So we're honored to have Vicky here with us to discuss her path to innovation. Vicky, thanks for joining us.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I'm very excited to be here.
Francis Vigeant: Wonderful. We mentioned some of MIT Venture Mentoring, teen mentoring. It seems like much of your time right now is involved in giving back. I'm hoping that, through our conversation today, we'll be able to explore some of the connections between STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — entrepreneurship, and innovation. I wanted to ask you, sort of to start things off from the get-go, really, when you think back into your experience as an innovator, as somebody who, I believe, started with an accounting degree, what was your "a-ha" moment that got you towards... An accounting degree- which is a STEM degree. What nudged you in that direction?
Vicky Wu-Davis: It's kind of interesting. My path to my professional life has not been a straightforward one. First off, I want to apologize if I end up coughing a little bit, and I'm a little bit lethargic. I'm actually getting over a very nasty cold. I have a five- and an eight-year-old that were both sick and have gotten me sick as well.
Francis Vigeant: No problem.
Vicky Wu-Davis: I don't think I have that one pivotal moment. I was raised in a family of computer scientists and engineers, so I kind of grew up immersed in STEM to begin with; it wasn't something that was very new to me. However, I was raised in a very fiscally conservative environment where risk was not something, at least financially, that was taken. I was also raised by a single mom as my parents got divorced when I was two.
My mom was a computer programmer, and my dad an electrical engineer, and neither of them ever uttered the word “entrepreneur” or “innovator.” In fact, I don't think I ever even knew what an entrepreneur was until I went to college, and even when I heard about it there, entrepreneurship was portrayed to me more as a small-business owner rather than the much more complex definition of what an entrepreneur — being an entrepreneur — means.
I think what did influence me, and what I feel being entrepreneurial is, is that even though my mom wasn't necessarily an entrepreneur by training, she was very entrepreneurial about life, and maybe by necessity. I feel like that's also the critical juncture where some people give up when there are roadblocks while others figure out how to make it work. While there's a single mom who was also a homeowner who spoke with an accent when we grew up, years and years ago in a very homogeneous neighborhood, trying to provide me with this middle-class lifestyle when we probably could have qualified for financial aid of various sorts.
We had very, very little resources, yet she was amazingly resourceful, and I never felt like I lacked anything. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized the obstacles that she had to overcome for her passion, which coincidentally was me, and to take care of me. Throughout life, I felt like I had no excuses for giving up when encountering obstacles, and the mentality is even to make something work — maybe not in the first way that you think of, and maybe not the most obvious, handed to you, already on this golden polished path, and maybe not equipped with everything you need, but, somehow, if there was a goal and you were passionate about making that goal, I watched, over and over again, my mom creatively make substitutions that probably ended up working out better than if she had gone the more ideal, run-of-the-mill route.
That was, sort of, what I feel mentally fostered my entrepreneurial mindset and my entrepreneurial behavior. If I look back, I feel that actually shaped me, more so, in kind of an odd way. I'm a little bit of an odd duck where I don't feel I have the traditional past, traditional professional trajectory.
Francis Vigeant: Sure. Well, that's a really powerful story because it sounds like through your mother's experience, and through being a part of that and observing the problem solving that was going on, that there was some element of inspiration there where, whether it was passive or active, something that you felt like you could solve problems as well. Was that anything that you were ever really conscious of at some point? Where it's like, you know... I think of entrepreneurs as having a problem-solving mindset.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Yeah. I think so. Yeah. I think resiliency and problem solving... Because, you know, we didn't have a choice. If something went wrong with the house, or something didn't go right with something, we didn't have, necessarily, the ability to then invite someone and pay for the service or whatnot; or to buy a new version of it. If there was a problem, you can't run away from it. You have to, basically, address it, and if you didn't have all the tools or all the materials or the products that you need that you would first obviously point to as the path or the right solutions, we have to creatively come up with that.
Yeah, I think that problem-solving mentality, I probably didn't frame it in such a sound byte when I was growing up. But if you're confronted with a problem, you fix it; and if you can't fix it the way you think it's supposed to be fixed, then you can't walk away from it. There has to be a solution to it. So, how can we creatively figure out a solution, within the few resources that we have, and make it work? And make it work not in a temporary solution sort of way, because then it will fall apart again. That costs more time, more money, that we didn't have. You have to figure out, really, what was the root problem of whatever thing is going on and kind of MacGyver the whole situation. Whether it was a product or some other ... It wasn't always a product-based thing that was broken, that had to be fixed. It had to work, and it had to work in a long-term way, because there was no other option.
I feel that that definitely laid the groundwork and the framework for having that problem-solving mentality growing up later. It was very subconscious before but, in hindsight, it definitely placed a foundation for me.
Francis Vigeant: For teachers, I think too, that we're often thinking, especially in urban or rural settings where we're teaching students who are resource-constrained and who may come from similar backgrounds, that it's almost, as if, kind of a myth that perhaps that places students at a disadvantage. But in some, from a skill standpoint, that may be actually equipping students for some things that we don't even expect in the sense of these problem-solving skills.
I wanted to ask you about your first big venture. I know you decided to leave corporate life. I think you were taking your accounting degree and working for a large company and sort of strike out on your own in a start-up with Froghop. What was the impetus to make the change and the one-minute basics for the average person? What did Froghop do that was innovative?
Vicky Wu-Davis: Sure. If I could go back to your prior comment about the resource constraints, community or background or starting point, and the tie with entrepreneurship, I think that's an excellent point. In my mind, I feel that having this entrepreneurial mindset — in teaching entrepreneurship, which I love to do — is absolutely an economic leveler in certain ways to level the playing field. A lot of time, the mentality is, even for my eight-year-old, because I think that, "If I only had this, I could do that." Everybody's definition of "I don't have enough" or "I have enough" is all relative. I feel that being entrepreneurial means taking what you have, and all I have is all I need, and I don't need anything else beyond that — at least to start it off.
It takes something that might have been a negative starting point for, say, me or someone else and says, "You know what? This is actually a creative challenge for me to figure out, because I can make it work." For those who maybe have never had the opportunity hear somebody say, "Well, we can't get that for you," can pose that. It becomes a design constraint. I feel that road blocks in life and challenges are not meant to be things that knock us down and is a quitting point, but rather it's a design constraint that we need creatively overcome no matter what it is. I wasn't 100% happy, professionally, working in the corporate world; and I don't think I actually put my finger on it for a long time. Thankfully, I was kind of driven to remain satisfied, because I know some friends who have basically stayed with what they knew and were not passionate about. After a while, you sort of get locked into that cycle of the incremental pay raise and more and more financial obligations, and it's really hard to leave it sometimes.
I didn't feel fully satisfied in my work, and so I started fidgeting around and trying to figure out what it was that I did like. At that point in time, I didn't know I was an entrepreneur. When I started reading and exposing myself to different networks, I found that I loved the whole uncertainty and chaos of things that were not working right, and trying to figure out a better way to do things. Or taking a set of constraints — here is the context, and this problem exists. And how do we fix that within the certain context, within these certain people. You can't all of a sudden wipe out the whole entire staff and say, "Let's hire from brand new." You can't say, "Oh, let's change x, y, z, with those removable parts."
To me, it was like a puzzle. My favorite cousin is a mechanical engineer, and I used to watch him take apart stuff and rebuild, and then modify one part to be able to test what would happen, and then do something else to make another goal happen. When I saw problems or inefficiencies within a company, or within just something else, that I felt could become better, I always ended up in my mind equating myself to him, except in a non-mechanical way. So I always felt I was the equivalent from the ... Except instead of... I guess I am not being so eloquent, but instead of with different components like mechanical components, it was different puzzle pieces of life and problems and issues. How do you solve that? I think that was what really intrigued me.
Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Vicky Wu-Davis: I ended up starting something on the side, which I did briefly, was to help out other companies that were started by people who were brilliant in what they did, whether it was in sciences, or in languages, or as a tech person, and then when they got to a point where they started to plateau around the three- to five-year mark, I helped them streamline their processes, and looked to improve their business. I really enjoyed that because, again, it was taking different pieces and trying to put it together in a puzzle that made sense.
I worked for Nextel and when they wanted to relocate, I decided that I would take a plunge. I've always been a passionate video gamer, so I decided, "Hey, you know, I'd love to be in the video game industry."
Francis Vigeant: I was just going to ask one quick question. Before you took the plunge... I wanted to ask you about the idea of career paths, because you were talking about this iterative increase in pay and climbing the ladder.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Francis Vigeant: I think that one of the big things that K-12 educators, workforce development and a number of other individuals are asking is, "Do career paths exist anymore?" I'm not really talking about within a company, so if you join x-y-z company, Fortune 500, that once you're in the door, you can work internally your way up the ladder. But the idea that a career path really exists if you want to be more of a... Someone says, "Well, I want to design cars." Or, "I want to design technology for video games." I don't mean to get the cart ahead of the horse if this isn't where you were headed. I wanted to ask that because when you brought up that idea of being in a corporate culture where there were iterative improvements, and yet you have all these skills and this interest in putting the puzzle pieces together, you have this entrepreneurial spirit. It seems like most companies would say, "That's exactly what we want." That's how you get to be designing cars, that's how you get to do these sort of fantastic things. What's your perspective on that? Is there a career path?
Vicky Wu-Davis: I think yes and no. I don't think it's a very black-and-white answer. If you want to aspire to be a dancer, or if you want to aspire to be a medical doctor or a lawyer, there are those kinds of things that you can study for and aspire to be. At the same time, there's no guarantees in life that you'll actually like it once you get there. At one point in time when I was younger, for the longest time I wanted be a criminal lawyer, and I wanted to fight crime, and I wanted to move to New York City where there were all these things. I didn't know what I was talking about; these were things that I had envisioned in my mind. I feel that, yes, there can be a career path and some people might be — I don't know if the word is lucky, but it just happens to be that whatever they had set their sights on, it actually was the love of their life, and they stay with it. At the same time, I feel that it's absolutely okay and absolutely doable to not really know for sure what you want to do.
Interestingly enough, when I look at people to hire or to work with, I actually prefer not to bring on somebody that has the cookie-cutter resume of they did this step, and they were the junior role here, and then after a few years they got promoted and were the senior role here, and then a few years later on they gained some incremental skills and were the next logical path. I actually like seeing people who have more of a little bit of an eclectic background. Then to me, personally, I feel like it signifies that they can take things that are unexpected, or something things that they may not be an initial expert in; but they have something that they're good at, so they can then quickly assess the situation, apply their skills for it, and then benefit a new situation.
Life is never the way you plan it. If the only way that you can do better and grow is to do this in a very linear fashion, I wonder, especially, not only in the start-up world but even in a large company or anywhere that there are changes that you have to react to quickly, that you might be affected in ...
I would rather see somebody that had a more eclectic background rather than a more linear one, where my assumption would be they know how to do it because they did it before. My question to them in the back in my mind is, "I wonder, if you hadn't experienced it before, would you know how to do it?"
Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Interesting. That I guess bring us back to Froghop in terms of, what was the issue that Froghop was setting out to solve that hadn't been solved, that nobody had experienced? What was the divergent thought that was Froghop, and could you tell us a little about that?
Vicky Wu-Davis: Sure.
Froghop didn't take a very linear path either. That's the thing, is that sometimes you might have this great idea in your mind, and you have this picture that you built. It could be just an idea; it could be a technical scientific innovation. Then you have to figure out how it actually fits into real life in its applicability. Who are you solving the problems for, and who would use it, and how would you get it to these people, and can you create the right relationships to make it all happen?
What Froghop ended up being was — we were essentially, if you think back, not even too long ago, our accessibility to information and data was mainly from the computer. We were a little bit tethered. Even with a laptop you have some mobility, but it was still relatively tethered. If you think about nowadays, if had to wait until you returned to the office to be able to read an email and to respond to it, you'd be like, "No way; absolutely unacceptable." Right? You have access to real time email from your phone, and you reply to it in real time, right away, and there's no time lost.
There's a type of video game that was played on your gaming rig, on a very specific computer that your game was loaded on. It was a subscription-based game where there were a lot of hardcore gamers. They spend a lot of their extra time... Maybe not so much extra time, but made it a priority to play these games. When they were at work or out of the house, they had no access to this information, to the game, the virtual world. You might be thinking, "Well, what's the big deal about that?"
Unlike some games where when you play it and you're done, you shut it off and it saves the status of where you were, in the virtual world, we're pretty much like the real world, in the fact that if you miss a day of work or miss a day of school, life goes on. Fires may happen that you're not there to put out, and then you have to deal with the repercussions when you do return to work. Sometimes when you leave for a week's vacation, you come back, you feel like you need another vacation just to catch up from all of that. In this virtual world, if you spend all of your resources and your time, your virtual resources and your actual time building up an empire, if you're not there constantly to guard it, your enemies... I know — depending upon on if you've played games — some of this may sound really silly, but the empire that you spent all this time building could be destroyed when you're not logged in.
The thing about this is that even though it's something of entertainment value, to certain people it becomes a necessity. To the video game industry business, there are also [...] as well that affect business. From the player's side, they needed to be able to have access to what was going on. For example, maybe being alerted if your empire was being destroyed. Or being able to access a tool that you really need in the auctions within these games. If you think about Bay, but for the virtual world, and then being able to do that functionality on your mobile phone, which a lot of us probably do now... Those types of things on your mobile. These were things that these particular gamers who spent a higher percentage of their discretionary income on these types of game-related activities — it was something pretty important to them.
From the video game makers, they had to deal with business issues such as attracting new players, because you pay money for that, and retaining them, because that's a consistent business model, so there's a consistent revenue stream that they depend on. If a player does not continue to play your game, you end up losing money. If the game is too time-consuming and you can't stay and play on it for a long period of time, and you keep getting your stuff destroyed time and time again, there's only so many times where you're like, "I'm gonna rebuild this fort again; let me do this again."
Francis Vigeant: Right.
Vicky Wu-Davis: You might just end up quitting, right? These fun aspects of it become real-life points that affect the survival of the game from a revenue standpoint, and we were addressing that. That wasn't how it had started off to be. It took a lot of adaptations to get to there.
Francis Vigeant: I can see the value though, because it's interesting. Thinking back to my childhood, I think of a game like Monopoly that we would play. It was a board game. We always had the constraint that we could never stay up late enough to build hotels. Because you had to go through the game, build up enough money, buy enough houses. It just took a lot of time. Our bedtime was eight o'clock. Eight o'clock came; we had to put everything away. We never got to build hotels. Essentially, after a while, that becomes discouraging. You go through that same process, get to the same point, and you have to shut down, and you kind of lose everything you've done. After a while, the game has less appeal.
With the virtual world, and computer games, the ability to save that and then, of course, make it mobile made that game which could go on for an awfully long time much more interesting. I could see how that would be much more valuable because, again, instead of putting the Monopoly board away and losing interest in Monopoly because you can't stay up later, you can somehow keep it going and it goes on down the road. How did that move forward from that point, then, to... You said that there were some additional changes that took place in its evolution.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Yeah, I should have went backwards. That's where it ended up.
Francis Vigeant: Okay.
Vicky Wu-Davis: The front of it was completely different. What ended up happening was that I had a passion for video games. I was 26 when I wanted to start this company. Raised some initial funding to build the game. Since I was fortunate enough to have had experience managing software development, I wanted to create a platform that would allow me to churn out a bunch of games down the road instead of creating it all from scratch. That ended up being my saving grace, without spending too much time and wasting the time detailing all that out, having that infrastructure on that back end allowed me to adapt when the market conditions... This was when — I don't know how many people remember the days where mobile technology was first introduced, and it was marketed as Internet in your back pocket.
Which, of course, nowadays it is. Back then, 15, 20 years ago, it was far from that. There were a lot of issues, and technology issues that didn't quite catch up or live to the expectations. So, the idea of playing video games on your mobile phone wasn't that popular. But because I had invested my money in creating an infrastructure and not just on a game, when the first idea didn't pan out, I didn't have to hold. I ended up trying to figure; I said, "Okay, well, here I am, I have this technology that I raised money and spent money on; gosh, what can I do with it now?"
I have been involved in STEM related stuff, but I personally don't code. Well, I can code. Not anymore. Back then, I could code a little bit; you wouldn't want me to code. It was a puzzle piece of trying to figure out, “Who could use this? What could I turn it into?” [...]
A lot of the things that affected the change and the evolution of the business were not necessarily technologically related. It was how the ecosystem was in respect to a lot of other factors — external. You had this technological innovation, but there are other forces at play that made me have to react differently and evolve the use of the technology to different circumstances. It's kind of like a lot of times you have STEM innovation, or even if you like a fictitious one like Flubber — I don't know if you guys know that movie. You have Flubber and it's like, "Oh, cool, this is this really cool scientific discovery." But it really doesn't mean anything to anybody. Maybe aside from the person who invented Flubber and a few other scientists. Unless you find out how that Flubber is going to actually be integrated into a useful way for the mainstream population, or at least where... Even if it's a niche population, how would that actually be utilized? There's no application for it.
Flubber is just something exciting for the person who invented it. That was sort of the challenge in the evolution.
I ran Froghop for a little over 10 years, then handed it to my right-hand guy to run it, because somewhere around the tail end of that my older son, who is now eight — he's a second grader — was born. When I became a mom, that whole first-time-mom contemplation of providing, to raise my kid. Anything from sleep things to nutrition to education all crossed my mind. Education was something that kept coming back and back and back. Because even though I loved my upbringing... Despite the whole single-mom thing, didn't feel like I was missing a beat. One of the things that I did feel that I would do differently is influencing the career choices that I would make. Of course, my mom did the best that she could; it was a lot of based off her own experiences. One of the things — couple of things — was that I think I mentioned earlier, both from cultural and monetary standpoint, our family was very fiscally conservative.
When I was a college senior and recruiters were interviewing me, apparently I was the only college senior they have ever met who had asked about 401K plans, and how long the probation was before I could start saving up a 401K, and how much income could I deduct from my paycheck to put into my 401K? They just looked at me, and they're like, "We've never had a college senior ask these questions." That was how I was brought up. When I was 16, I had an internship at Lockheed as a graphics illustrator, my mom opened an IRA account for me. That's where my money went. My mom, I had wanted her to spend some time with me, so she stopped being a computer programmer for a while, and took time to raise me; and then had work-reentry issues. This was before the days of LinkedIn and other things.
Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)
Vicky Wu-Davis: On a paper resume she had a gap in her work experience. People are like, "Oh, the language has changed. You don't know how to code this anymore." They had no idea that my mom's brain was wired in a way where she could pick up any language, any coding language possible; it didn't matter if she worked in it before. You couldn't tell that on a paper resume. She had trouble getting back into finding a job. I remember her saying to me, "Well, you know, it's hard with this kind of technology, because technology always changes. A safer route for you ... " Because it's always about the safe route, right? Job stability and income stability. Also, my parents' mentality was that — and this is where I thoroughly disagree — they felt that work was not about doing what you loved, because then it would be called a hobby. Work was about bringing home a paycheck so you could put food on the table, roof on the head, save up for college; and if you had leftovers, for a nest egg.
My mom said, "Technology changes, so a safer route would be accounting. Because it essentially is recession-proof. Doesn't matter what industry's hot or not; doesn't matter what level on the totem pole you want to be. There's always room for an accounting job." That's how I ended up choosing accounting. I also had an accounting class when I was in high school and just did really well in it. I said, "Sure. I am very good at it, and it's a good job choice." That's why I studied it. I don't regret studying that, because it's a great foundation that I utilize, but that doesn't mean I have to make what I studied into my career choice. I use it all the time in what I do. It's just very important, tangential part of it. I got into this debate of how I wanted to raise my kid. Do I want to support him in whatever he wants to do, regardless if it has this traditional income-stability thing? Or, do I want to support him in whatever interest he has? That was the whole transition part. It was a lot of that stuff that got me thinking.
Francis Vigeant: Yeah, that's very interesting. You bring up several other questions. I want to talk about YouthCITIES and some things related to STEM here in a little bit. One of the things you just mentioned brought up a question for me that I think a lot of people are wondering.
One, when I think about our work here at KnowAtom internationally, I think about our focus on not only empowering educators and students, but empowering women and girls. There's been a number of reports over the past few years that have really identified girls — young women — women in general as being, especially in places like Africa — the future of Africa is really in the hands of women and girls and investing in education and empowerment for them. I wonder, because of what you were just mentioning, what do you see, as a woman innovator that...
What are the barriers that we need to be thinking about that we can, as K-12 educators, help break down? I think about, what brought this up for me was that idea of being in the role of "What is secure? What puts food on the table?" I was raised by a single mother; my mother and my sister. She was that person as sole head of household. I think about that, and I think about single-parent families, and I think about, unfortunately, the role that often falls to women can often be this role. How does that fit into the puzzle here, with STEM education and innovation, and so on?
Vicky Wu-Davis: This is funny, because this is a topic I'm very passionate about. I'll try to see if I can just not go too deep into it.
One of my main things is I'm a big, huge proponent that neither a ZIP code nor gender should define a person's potential. I feel like sometimes right away, through that, that becomes an identifier that actually affects somebody's career path, or their future, and their access to it and things of that sort. Interestingly enough, from a gender or even a minority standpoint — I've been in video games, I've been in telecom, I've been in entrepreneurship — more often than not, I am the token female in those environments. In video games, I encountered that from two perspectives. One was that video game players are often categorized to be more of a male hobby. Then there was this whole industry discussion about women in the industry, and how to welcome it, because it's sometimes viewed as not the most welcoming environment for women in the industry. I'm trying to figure out where to start.
If I use the video game industry part of things... I'm often not a big fan. There's a time and a place for everything. I'm going to generalize a lot. In a lot of ways, if we use a video game as an example, not a huge fan of categorizing girl games versus guy games. I would use the same thing, I was talking to a teacher the other day, and I said, "I have that approach also when it comes to learning." Instead of, "Here's how boys learn, and here's how girls learn," there are different types of learners. I categorize them from a learning or communication style, or game-playing style or habit, and not so much of a boy or girl thing. I think that's one of the things. Very early on, and I feel that even despite a lot of the things that are going on in the adult world of the... You know, whether it's intentional or not, some of the biases in gender. I actually feel it's a systemic issue that goes way back down into the elementary and middle school years; or even younger than elementary. There's these subtle biases that happen that I have seen from teachers; I've seen it from parents; I've even seen it from other moms that you would think.
Whether it's subtle biases on how we treat and educate, and how we present the information to boys versus girls, or saying that... Sometimes that can even be when somebody needs... Or, the approach is to cater to the girls. There was one time, this three-year-old boy was... It was a Lego type of event. At three, everybody was just playing and building Legos. Then there was a group of girls that went to the side with another woman to do Legos. This boy very innocently asked, "Oh, why are they going over there? Do the girls need more help?" It was just an interesting comment of that.
I understand that there are certain… There's a time and a place for affinity groups and things of that sort. It's hard to, in a very short amount of time, try and pinpoint which situation is right for what. Sometimes at certain ages, the separation in the silo-ING can answer that. There's also the... I guess maybe I could use some help on the guidance line, because this is such an issue and topic that I'm very passionate about.
Francis Vigeant: Sure, sure.
Vicky Wu-Davis: It's very broad; there's a lot of things. Do you want me to talk about what I feel are issues, or what could benefit? How would you like me to approach this?
Francis Vigeant: I guess the thing is what are, if you had maybe... Within your experience, where you ran into... Let's just categorize this as gender bias in some form.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Okay.
Francis Vigeant: Where's one or two examples of where you ran into that? Basically, if it's not obvious, how can we as educators help prevent that? I feel like I'm starting to get a sense from what you were saying a moment ago; we've all probably been guilty of that. "Let your father do that. Let your brother do that." Some sort of almost sublime, subliminal sort of situation. I'm wondering about maybe as you were trying to grow your company, you mentioned maybe fundraising or these gamer communities where you were... Male and female wasn't as 50/50, perhaps.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Yeah. I personally — I see it around me, and I see women who have had to deal with this a lot. Me, personally, I've only had two blatant situations where I've encountered this. One of them was when I worked for a large corporation. It was in the role of finance and things of that sort. The company was mostly male. I was fulfilling; I was a new hire. There were two new roles: One was an accounts receivable, and one was my role. Mine was more senior than accounts receivable. What was interesting was that the head of that location kept mistaking me and introducing me to other staff members as the person that you would submit your reimbursement forms to. I kept having to explain that that wasn't, and that was the role for another person who coincidentally was a male.
Well, “coincidentally”'s not the right word. Who was filled by a male.
But prior to that, the roles were reversed; where my role was held by a guy, and the accounts receivable was held by a woman. I think that there was confusion... It had to be corrected over and over again. Then I was a... It ended up being where I was also asked by this person, when he couldn't find his admin, to help him type up a letter.
Francis Vigeant: Oh, goodness.
Vicky Wu-Davis: That was one situation that I encountered which I could definitely tell that it was a gender-related thing. Then, when I started Froghop, I was fundraising, so I was presenting with my team to a team of investors. When I was done, I was complimented by the head investor guy on doing an extremely good job. Then he added, "Especially being the only woman." Then I looked around and I was like, “Oh, that's right.”
My team, I was the founder and CEO of the company. My team was guys, and the others were also all guys. I didn't even notice it, because I was there like, "Okay, this is my company. This is what I want to do. I want to raise X amount of money." It was about getting the job done. That one wasn't necessarily a negative thing; it was just pointing out, hey, wow. It didn't matter that I was the only woman. To some people, it might have been an intimidating situation. For me, it was just like, "I'm sent here to do this thing; I have to do this thing. I need to figure out a way to do it." And I did it. Those were the only two that I personally experienced, from that perspective.
Francis Vigeant: It's interesting. Perhaps, as we're in our classrooms and thinking about student groupings, and the way that we convey "boys here, girls there," or some of these different groupings, you have to really think about the fact that students grow up to be employees and coworkers and so on. I can see how that type of environment, it's actually quite surprising that it's that blatant. Thinking about —
Vicky Wu-Davis: I have two little boys. I remember somebody coming to me, actually, another woman, who had said, "Oh, you're so lucky that you have two little boys so you don't have to deal with all these issues of women in the workforce, and women in STEM, and all that kind of stuff." I looked at her and I said, "Actually, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. Because how I raise my little boys, it will affect how they end up treating... They will grow up to be the male colleagues of female peers." I said, "Absolutely I have a responsibility to, I do have that burden to do it in a way that I feel is right." I feel that it starts very, very young. My older son, when he was five, got a gift that was a book. It was sort of like an I-Spy type book. It said, "For boys." My son looked at me, and he's like, "I don't understand. Why is it for boys?" We talked about it. He ended up getting masking tape and covering up "For boys" and said for kids. I was very proud of that.
Francis Vigeant: I know I was speaking to the founder of GoldieBlox, and she was talking about the idea of the blue side of the aisle and the pink side of the aisle in the toy section, and how that's this manufactured fence. Yet, people continue in that path. It's interesting. The —
Vicky Wu-Davis: Yeah, pinking something doesn't make it girl-friendly.
Francis Vigeant: Right. Right, exactly. Exactly. These days, you're spending an awful lot of your time mentoring. Mentoring young entrepreneurs and students. I wanted to talk, and I have now just a few shots of YouthCITIES ... CITIES is an acronym: Youth Creating Impact Through Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability. I know that through YouthCITIES, youth are getting introductions to entrepreneurship. They're getting opportunities to mock presentations. They're collaborating with peers. I believe that these are not students that are necessarily from all the same ZIP code, as you said earlier. They're getting a lot of really worthwhile exposure to be able to take their ideas and bring them to life. I believe you also have pitches, and students can actually literally do just that; go from learning public-speaking skills to using them, to bringing an idea to life. Can you tell us a little bit about YouthCITIES, and where you're headquartered, and a little bit of the vision, and how this works?
Vicky Wu-Davis: Sure. We're headquartered in Massachusetts. I work out of Cambridge, which is often considered a hub of innovation. [...] We are on the path to expand [...] in Miami. I had mentioned earlier that YouthCITIES was the inspiration... It was inspired by, rather, the birth of my older son. One of the things that I had led up to was that the whole career choice, and do I steer them in a way of choosing something that has a definite income generating path, or do I support them no matter what their interests are? Even if it's traditionally not a very stable job trajectory. As I was thinking these things I thought, Well, if you have a start up, then you can do whatever you want, and you can hopefully make money that way, and problem solved. Then I thought, Well, there are a lot of people who are actually not going to be bitten by the start-up bug. That that doesn't appeal to them.
My husband had started a company that got acquired in 2008, and he never wants to be an entrepreneur again. He was a very successful one, but it isn't his cup of tea. I felt that if I imposed that whole start up mentality on my sons, that's no different than my mom, in her good-intentioned way, imposing, or strongly suggesting [...] with the whole accounting, and the principles don't change as much as technology does. I thought, My mom didn't have it so wrong about the whole transferable-skillset thing. I thought that was actually quite clever. No matter what you do, it is useful and helpful as a transferable skillset. I thought about that, and it made me think back to... This is where my zigzagging of my professional soul-searching came in. I was like, the whole puzzle piece-ING thing of identifying a problem, and then understanding that a problem has many layers. If you're trying to solve the problem, are you solving the right part of the problem? Why did previous attempts fail? Why not do it this way? And all things that go along with it. If I don't have all these resources to make that happen, what could I do in substitution to show people that this is the better path, and all that stuff?
Will it have long-term longevity? Anything can work short term, but does the environment and the ecosystem support it where it will continue that way, or is it going to run out of, whether it's manpower, or natural resources, or whatnot; and think about it holistically. If it's so great, can you repeat and replicate?
In other words, sustain and scale. I thought, that is actually applicable no matter where you go. At the end of the day, I just want my kids to make impact. I don't want them to get rich or just be happy with status quo. I want them to want to do things, and have ideas, and then execute. A million people have ideas. I hear people thinking, "Oh, what about this light-bulb moment?" Or complaining about something over and over again, without doing anything. I was like, ideas are a dime a dozen, but the execution part is priceless. Can I teach my kids to, when they see something that isn't right, or see something that's inefficient, or see something that they could be doing better, can I teach them to take that and piece the puzzles together... Did I say that right? Piece the puzzles, piece the pieces, whatever.
Francis Vigeant: Sure. Put the puzzle pieces together. Sure.
Vicky Wu-Davis: There we go. There's the cold medicine.
They can make impact on whatever choice they want, in whatever field they want. As long as you are passionate about what it is, then you should love what you do. Then you become subject-matter expert in it, because you love it. If you love it, you do it over and over again, you're immersed in it, and you are an expert. You're going to know, more than anyone else. This is what I tell you if you tell me, "I'm just a kid. How am I going to make a difference? How am I going to make this happen? I don't have enough money, and I don't know enough." I say to them, "Money is an issue for most of us; any entrepreneur. Because even the really wealthy..." And there are examples of really wealthy people who, when they try and watch a business, and they are the only ones who are trying to pay for it and sustain it, they can still go bankrupt, and it doesn't work.
You really have to, those entrepreneurial principles apply of what problem are you solving, and who else is going to support it? There's always somebody that can red-light it, and things of that sort. Money is an issue across the board for entrepreneurs, and we'll teach you how to address that. I said from a subject-matter-expertise standpoint, yeah, maybe you don't have experience because you're 13. But if you've been skateboarding since you were eight, or if you've been coding since you were 11, then you are a subject-matter expert in that. If you've grown up in an area all your life, somebody else from outside of that can't tell you how good or how bad or how tough something is, or what works and what doesn't work, because you are the one who lived it day in and day out. You are the expert, not them. Right? If you take that, something that you know, that you're passionate about... Not like, "I want to be like Mark Zuckerberg." Mark Zuckerberg's great, but don't try and copy him because he has a gazillion dollars. No. Take something that you're passionate about, and do something with it.
At the same time, maybe you can sustain yourself so that you can put food on the table. I'm their mom, right? I don't want them to starve. I want them to have food, and I want them to be sheltered and all that stuff, with a roof over their heads. If they can take that, then they can make impact in government, in public office. They could do it in philanthropy. They can do it in a large corporation. They can do it in their own start up, or somebody else's start up. It doesn't matter to me where they do it, as long as they make impact and do something about it and execute. I thought, if I can teach kids to be entrepreneurial... This is all stuff that I wanted to teach my own kids. I figured if I'm going to create this whole system, this whole method, and the content and whatnot to teach my own kids, gosh that's a lot of work; I might as well take it to anybody who wants to learn it.
That's how YouthCITIES came along; so that you can make impact, and you can make a difference, and you can execute your ideas. You can do it in whatever way you want to do it, in whatever form that you want to do it. Here are the tools to do it with and things of that sort. That was how it all began, and that's the whole premise of YouthCITIES. It started off as a pet project on the side when I was still running Froghop. It was one program. Then, after a couple years... I actually didn't even know if I wanted to work with teenagers; I'd always worked with younger kids, and early-ed and stuff in volunteer capacity. But I fell in love, realized that teens have so much pent-up creativity. Some may not have even known that this was their outlet for it. If you just give them the opportunity to be heard, and give them the tools to navigate and take their own content, and drop it in with this template that you're giving them, they're not jaded yet. At least, not the years of experience that we as adults have. We have that little bit of fear and risk-averse part of "Well, I don't know if that'll work." And that youth, and that wide-eyed hopefulness.
No matter what the circumstances, it's quite amazing if you show to them that you believe in them, and you can trust them, and whatnot. It was very empowering for youth of all different backgrounds. What was really inspiring to me... Diversity was also a huge issue or, kind of, a fundamental thing that I wanted to impart on my own kids — on my son. That's how I shaped YouthCITIES from the start. It was really amazing to hear from one particular student of mine. She said, she was like, "Thank you for creating something for me to be able to participate in. Not as a pet project. Not as someone to be saved, because I'm not looking to be saved. I just want the same access to learn, and the same access, the same opportunity, to be heard. And to have the same access to be taken seriously as a peer, and as a contender." She had felt in a way where if there was anything... She was a hard worker. She felt that a lot of the... There was not enough challenge in the programs that were offered to her. But if there was, because she happened to come from a resource constrained environment, it was sort of a, "Here's new tools, and good luck. Hope you stay in school."
She never felt like she was really taken seriously, and that they expected her to achieve and to win. She was like, "I don't want special privilege to win. I just want equal access and be an equal peer and taken seriously as a contender." That really struck a chord with me. It happened to be what I believed anyways; she just encapsulated it into a sound byte for me.
I feel that those words also apply to the whole gender thing as well. We don't need the special crutch or the special help; we want the same access to whatever education that maybe the old boy's network has, the same access to be heard, and the same equal opportunity to be taken seriously as a peer, and as an equal contender. That girl's words apply to her; I felt they really resonated for a lot of issues that were important to me.
It dovetailed really, really nicely with the whole entrepreneurship and innovation, because innovation happens best when you have different perspectives. If everybody was cut from the same cloth, then you have the same point of view, the same perspective. The solutions that you offer are kind of stale. If you get different people from different experiences, and different... I'm not just talking about socioeconomic, or gender, or ethnicity, or whatnot. Even just the introverts and extroverts, the tech geek and the creative artsy person, and things of that sort. You get them in a room and they have these different perspectives. You're going to have so many different viewpoints. That's what fosters innovation. The great thing is that when you have that exposure to all these differences in the beginning, because I hate the word “tolerance.”
Tolerance — I know this is off topic, but tolerance to me means a “grit your teeth and bear it” thing. It doesn't mean acceptance. It means, “Maybe I'm accepting it, but it's a twisted arm acceptance.” Whereas, if you get them all together, and passionate, and interacting, and they're all from diverse backgrounds, then you end up fostering this genuine appreciation for these differences that gets carried through much later on in life. These young people will then become the coworkers who are open-minded and more accepting of different points of view, and gender, and perspective, because that's what they were exposed to at a younger age. When I see that, I find it's such a beautiful thing.
I feel that difference and appreciation for that innovation, because of that diversity, ends up being the seed that I want to plant. I get very inspired by that. I feel that for so many reasons. We shouldn't underestimate the kid's abilities to innovate and to make impact, and to have the ability and the desire to want to do great things. While you do that, you expose them to diversity. Then it just paves the way for how they think down the road. Not only are they able to adapt and problem-solve in the future, which makes them more job ready for whatever job that they choose; whether it's the same career path... Even if you want, you're on this defined path, "I want to be a dancer, I want to be a medical doctor, I want to be an engineer," it doesn't hurt to be an entrepreneurial engineer, or an entrepreneurial whatever. Look at all the medical innovation. It comes from medical doctors who also have that entrepreneurial flair. They're the ones who are saving lives in new ways that you can never imagine.
There was this pediatric case where... I don't remember the details. She was born with, I think, half a heart. I don't think she was statistically supposed to make it. But then ended up living longer than her anticipated predicted time. There was this pediatric surgeon, I think based in Florida, and he ended up using... Well, here's something that I think is really cool and entrepreneurial. He normally will use a 3D printer to print out and to prep for surgery. Right? Here's technology, great, to help out. Then in this particular case, 3D printer didn't work. Instead of being like, "Oh, roadblock, I can't see the 3D printout of the heart that I'm supposed to operate on," he ended up remembering about Google Cardboard. He ended up talking to another doctor about Google Cardboard. He was able to see the heart not only as a printout in a silo on its own, the heart, but he was able to pre-map out how he was going to do the surgery; because it was also that the surgery was very invasive. And the path to reaching the heart was very troublesome. Through Google Cardboard, he was able to map it all out ahead of time. It's all entrepreneurial.
Francis Vigeant: Sure.
Vicky Wu-Davis: He ended up having a successful operation. Here's where technology and the sciences and this medical doctor who embraced innovation, and then didn't get knocked down when the 3D printer, the supposed ... It was an [...] to begin with, but this goes back to what I was talking about with my mom and not having all the resources. If this doesn't work and you don't have a 3D printer... I don't know why he didn't get another 3D printer; I don't know all the story behind that. This is just a little news clip that I read. For whatever reason, that roadblock of not having a 3D printer led him to do the Cardboard, Google Cardboard, which was a much better way, because he was able to map out the surgery route that he wouldn't have been able to do if he had the successful 3D printout of the heart. Anyway…
Francis Vigeant: Yeah, that's really interesting. It's interesting too that YouthCITIES has become this crossroads for youth to be able to engage their creative side, their problem-solving side, and do it in the context of creating small businesses, entrepreneurship. I suppose there's so many different labels we could put on it. But that idea of access, and the authenticity of that access too is, I think, a lot of what I'm hearing. I can relate to that, too, as having some similar background to you with the way I grew up and such; that if you're success is not genuine, it's not yours. If somebody's just giving you something, that's not... Whether or not it works, whether or not it meets the need, it doesn't leave you in a very good place as a person. The only thing you're really looking for is that access; it's to have stage, to have the opportunity to prove yourself. To really go at the challenge. That's such a powerful story. You bring up so many different, really, amazing and interesting points here.
One of the things, and for folks who are on the live session, I wanted to let you know we'd like to take some questions from you. If you'd like to put in any questions that you may have, you can do that now. I just wanted to ask a couple of things here. One, with the Next Generation Science Standards, one of the things that's changing is this idea that there's a relationship between science and engineering — that science now has this definition that scientists ask questions, and they use experiments to develop new scientific knowledge, and that engineers use that knowledge to solve problems. That's how they come to this point of prototyping and testing, and then scaling technology. They have a kind of synergy and use math as a language for communication. Communication being, one, technical communication, and so on.
It seems too that all of this relies on a lot of what you were talking about too, when you think about scientists and engineers, scientists asking question and structuring experiments and gathering data to reflect back. Where engineers, using their knowledge, like in this case, your example with Google Cardboard. I know about Google Cardboard; couldn't we do this with Google Cardboard? And using that, unless it's a prototype, in a live test to try and solve an issue. Really relying on those creative, evaluative, and analytical skills, and having that authentic experience. I think about YouthCITIES as giving access and opportunity to really engage in that process; not just the rote process that sometimes learning becomes at the middle school and high school level; where there's that traditional model. Where oftentimes we talk about here at KnowAtom this idea that a traditional model is this content that flows through an expert, and the teacher having to be in that expert role explaining, and demonstrating, and so on; and the students having to repeat and recall. There's a lot of shift happening.
What we talk about in this switch to effective STEM instruction, as the National Research Council calls it, that effective instruction capitalizes on early interests and experiences; it identifies and builds on what students know, provides them with experiences to engage them in the practices of science and engineering, and sustains their interest. It's not something that's unique to science; it's not something that's unique to engineering. It's almost a human process, or human quality that... Identifying and building on things we know, extending that in context with skills, and trying to build on it is something that is the human spirit, but at the same time, it's the spirit of innovation. I wanted to ask you this question before we take some questions from others. I use this slide sometimes when I talk to schools and districts about changing instructional practices, and pedagogy.
I bring it up here because I wonder, what are your thoughts on where innovation comes from, and how we accomplish it in the sense of I feel like when we talk to districts about changing the instructional practices, we often talk about why we're teaching, and our values, and the mode of instruction, and what we do to try to accomplish those values? The how being the details of execution. When you were talking about there is no shortage of ideas, but it's the execution that's really crucial, I think about YouthCITIES, and this forum of students coming together from such diverse backgrounds, but perhaps finding overlap in values — in why. Then having, perhaps, a lot of overlap, or perhaps not. Then thinking about what. If they value solving a particular issue, what are they going to do to try to solve that? Then actually how are they going to go about it? Is that the stuff of innovation? Where does it come from? Is there some overlap here?
Vicky Wu-Davis: Yeah. That's a loaded question right there.
Francis Vigeant: Yeah.
Vicky Wu-Davis: It's a lot. Let me see if I can try and attempt to answer it.
I feel that... I think the biggest thing is that most people, I mean, there's different types of learners. Yes, there are certain learners who will respond to the whole rote memorization, and have no interest in how everything connects together. I think for the most part, and even those who are good at the rote-memorization part, I think the majority of people can benefit from understanding the connectedness of the world. I think that's the biggest thing that's missing. It's not as easy to necessarily solve, even if that is the identified problem. In my mind, I think it's just understanding holistically... That's how the world works, right? The reason why a pure technical or scientific innovation isn't necessarily going to solve something, isn't going to work, is not because of how...
I mean, there could be flaws in the technology, but you could have a technologically flawless innovation. If you can't fit it in and connect it to the world, and how it works, then it won't succeed. Right? Until the person that comes along and connects the dots and says, "This is how it applies, and this is how it used. Not only did we find a problem, but we also took into consideration of how it fits in with how people work, and how people use things." Because there's also a legacy component, right, of... Whether it's cultural legacy, political legacy, staff legacy... Folks have been here for a long time; this is how we've always done it. Things of that sort. Just being able to understand and adapt to that, that's part of the reason why this whole “trying to figure out the execution of how to instruct” also is challenging. There are existing practices and testing methodologies and standards that we have to adhere to and things of that sort that make it hard to ... based learning, that will solve it.
If the idea is there, the solutions could be great, but then the hard part is trying to figure out how it fits in, because the students are all different, and the teachers are all different. Then there's the pipeline of, okay, colleges; how are they going to evaluate [...]. We can hem and haw at the individual pieces and say why it works or doesn't work. The hard part is putting it all together. I think what ends up helping, in learning in general... And for me, specifically, it's understanding how things fit in to the rest of the world. I feel that a lot of times when I learn in isolation, when I learn in these silos of dis-embedded pieces of information, I'm kind of... I've always been a good student, so I can go with the motions and learn it. Do I really absorb it? If you ask me a week after I got tested, even though I might have gotten a really good test score, how much of it do I really remember? Do I know even what the relevancy of it is to anything else?
I think that the content is good. We do need content. At the same time, content always changes. There's certain things that... It's not just the content, even if the content stays the same. It's trying to figure out how to apply what we learn in the classroom to the real world. There's a gap in the connectedness, even from there. Whether it's a direct career path, or whatnot. I always found that I always learned better, or absorbed the material from the class better, after I had an internship. It didn't make sense to me why I was learning something until I actually saw it. Not necessarily... Even in something like accounting. It was like, "Okay." This is how accounting fit in for the rest of the company, why this is important. Then it all made sense to me. Then I started remembering it more.
One of the things that I also do on the side that was sort of created out of necessity was that... I'm Chinese, and my husband is not. I'm trying to raise my boys to be bilingual. When my older son was three, he decided he didn't want anything to do with Chinese. I thought, "Okay, well, at three and a half, I can enroll him in a traditional Chinese school and get that rolling." He absolutely hated it. Culturally, it's a very... The way to learn things is a lot of content and rote memorization. I didn't want him to end up resenting and rebelling against the Chinese culture. He's only half-Chinese, and so it's hard enough to...
I'm American born. Even though I'm fluent in Mandarin, I think in English, so it's not complete; I speak Chinese to him, and they speak English with my husband. I ended up designing this program that I felt was... I ended up creating a program that was Chinese immersion, but I used a whole bunch of STEM components to piece it together.
I was thinking to myself, it's not a comprehension and it's not a capability thing; because the syllables on dinosaur names are horrendously long. Any young kid can out-speak the dinosaur speak better than any preschool teacher. I can attest that, because I had two kids who went through those phases. If you tell a kid that, “Okay, this is a beaver,” then you tell him to repeat it, but say it in Chinese, there's no inspiration to do that. You're just kind of... Some kids will do it because you tell them to, but others, it's not going to absorb. What I ended up doing was putting it all in context, but in a way that it was more interdisciplinary. We combined a bunch of different methodologies; we did the whole visual-audio kinesthetic learning as well, and all those other techniques.
If you say, if the kids hear about, say, Buddy the Beaver, and they can discuss the unique features of Buddy — the furry, the wet feet, big teeth, whatnot. It's a little more interesting. Then, you may then carry that over and correlate why their teeth are big, and for what reason, and let's figure out, and let's test this, and make them into experiments, you can start forming hypotheses.
When you put the questions and imposing onto the kids, A) They become more active participants, versus just passively trying to absorb the information. B is, if you don't know the answer, it's actually cool. You can put the burden on them to ask the questions, then say, "Hey, you know what? I don't really know." Or, "Let's see." You don't even have to say that you don't know. It's like, “Let's see. Let's try it out; let's test it. We can find it out through this experiment.”
You can also then add layers of it and say, "Okay, then what else do they do? What is a beaver dam?" Can you compare and contrast what this is to something else? Then you can also get them to get all muddy, and get some sticks, and get them all dirty, and try and build a dam. Then you have all these lessons that build off of that.
Through a natural course of experimentation and observation and discussion, you then create this feedback loop. All of a sudden, what I end up doing was creating this environment that not just had Chinese shoved down the kids' throat, but it got them to participate into it. If they wanted to be able to do something, they were incentivized intrinsically to be able to know the words, so that they could actually build a beaver dam. Then, oh no, it didn't work. What else? They have to use Chinese in order to be able to get to the next level of the experiment.
It also encourages them to speak to each other in that, which is missing from a lot of Chinese classes, which you only respond to what the teacher is asking, and there's no conversation, no dialogue. As soon as it's recess, they all speak together in English. Then, all of a sudden, the words made sense, and there was a connectedness to it. There was a whole scene in contextual relevance to a lot of the stuff that they were doing, and so they were more engaged.
I feel that... That may not have been the best example; it just happened to apply to how I ended up engaging my kids into learning Chinese. We also made ice cream, and if you want to be able to eat the ice cream, then you certainly would be motivated to know the words of, say, “spoon” and all those things so that you could actually eat the ice cream.
The point being is that I feel that one of the biggest things that's missing in getting people to think, and to test, and to hypothesize, and then validate, invalidate, is how it fits into the real world, and then it's okay to not know the answer, from the student side or the teacher side, and figure it out together.
I have kids who are, like I said, from a wide variety of ZIP codes. One of the things it that, because of a variety of other things, a bunch of different programs, they tend to be what I call thirsty learners. Kids who are really like, "Tell me more; I want to know more; I want to do more."
With that, I have a lot of AP students. What's funny is that, a lot of times, I see this trend where AP students are the first ones where, if they talk to somebody who doesn't like their idea, or they do research and they realize that somebody else has already done it, they're the ones that freak out the most. They're like, "Oh, my gosh. Do I have enough time? I can't do it." Why don't you want to do this idea? "Well, because, you know, it's already been done." Or, "So-and-so said my idea isn't good, and blah, blah, blah." Right away, they think that... They don't realize that they're throwing in the towel. All they feel is that they're getting this "bad grade" because all their initial things of what they thought was right was all of a sudden told to them that they were wrong. I would have to work through this process, along with all the amazing mentors that are [...] program as well, to help them see that no matter what idea there is, there's going to be flaws to it; you have to figure out when, and how, and why, and where, and what context, and whatnot — that it's valid. And that almost all ideas, having one reincarnation or another, have happened already.
It's a matter of adjusting the who, and the why, and the how, and whatnot, to figure out the right pieces and adjust it, and make it happen. A lot of the AP students at first don't believe me. I finally have to tell them... They want this perfect presentation that has this "flawless" path to their solution, and sort of an A answer. I told them that if they only have one version and it seems flawless in their presentation, I said they will actually get a higher ranking or scoring if they have multiple versions of the idea that showed that they were proven wrong here, and they did this to change it. And they were proven wrong here, and they did this to adapt it; and that there were multiple versions of the same idea. That boggles their minds. It's funny.
I don't see that as much with the middle school students. I see it a lot more with the AP students; those who take a lot of AP classes. It's this whole... They're very surprised by the fact that their idea's made better by being proven wrong so many times, and to adapt it. They always think that there's one way to do things. I'm trying to shift that. Even with my... I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old. There's nurture and nature and all that kind of stuff.
My eight-year-old's academically reading and writing, Matthew — he's very, very good. He's the first person where if he doesn't have everything that he needs to, in his mind, that he has all the tools needed, "I can't do it." I'm like, "What do you mean you can't do it?" "I don't have the right pencil. I don't have a 3D printer." He actually said that one time. "I don't have this, I don't have that."
I'm like, "Honey, there's a lot of things you're not going to have. If you want to be able to accomplish things, you're going to have to figure out how you're going to do it without every tool that you think is needed." When he's trying to draw something, if he makes one mistake, he has to start all over again. I was like, "No, you don't have to start over. It's just like if you want to go to your friend's house, and you go to the wrong house, do you go all the way back home to go to your friend's house?" "Well, no, I go to my friend's house from that new house." "Well, yeah, it's the same kind of thing; you start from there." To him, it's this hard concept, but he's getting better at it.
Whereas my younger son, who's only five, if you tell him that, "I'm sorry, we can't do it this way." Or, "There's not enough to do it that way." He'll get to that endpoint that he wants to — that he's determined to get to. It may not be the way that he originally wants to do it, but he'll find some other way to do it. It's just interesting, the contrast. When I'm with my son's elementary school, and we talk about maker spaces and things of that sort, and we had a discussion with the teachers, you know, if they want to make clouds and you don't have cotton balls, don't go out and run and get cotton balls.
Francis Vigeant: Right, right, right.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Let them figure out what else can be clouds. It doesn't just have to be cotton balls; it could be something else. If there isn't anything else that they can creatively interpret as clouds, then what could they do to change the narrative of the story where it's no longer that. Or maybe it's not a sunny day with white fluffy clouds, but you have black stuff that will represent stormy clouds. Things of that sort.
Basically, all you have is what you need, and nothing more than that. Can you create something out of that that still fits the narrative? It enabled you to leverage your skillset and your resources that you have at hand and things of that sort. I think that those are the early beginnings of being able to innovate. If you're that rigid, it's hard to innovate, because things never work out the way you planned. Even if you have all the knowledge in the world.
Francis Vigeant: Right. It's interesting that you share that, because we see very similar things in classrooms oftentimes. Even in instructional models as well. You mentioned earlier, learning alongside students. And viewing a challenge as an opportunity for everybody to figure out where the puzzle pieces go. I think of that example you gave of the AP students wanting the perfect path and can't help but picture that as something that is really enabled by that: "I need it to be perfect because that's what I'm giving you, and that's what I've seen. I've seen something perfect, so I need to give something perfect back." Almost like that idea, “I need to do what Mark Zuckerberg did, because that makes a lot of money. If I do exactly what he did, then I'm going to end up in that same place.” It's kind of this one to one, trying to repeat what's already been done to try to come to the same place; but it doesn't quite fit that way.
I guess I feel good about the shifts that I've been seeing in instruction as well, because the Next Generation model is really built on experience, and that idea that students should be developing skills, and using those skills to develop and use content. It is that immersive experience; it is that... I don't know. It's taking on the challenge, and having to... In the sense of the cloud example. Either change the narrative, view it from a different angle, or find a substitute to meet your goals. I think it's changing the dynamics. I think also for teachers, I think a lot of us are finding ourselves in a situation where under these new standards and policy changes that are happening, it's not about trying to be the expert on everything, but how to be an appropriate coach so that we can help students understand how to engage appropriately. So instead of running out to get the cotton balls because nothing else will do for clouds, it's helping students understand what you just described. What else is there? What other option are there? How can we accomplish the same goal, or a similar goal, or get there? It's really interesting how these pieces overlap.
I want to grab those couple of questions. I know you've been so generous to give us the extra time here. Some of the questions... Before, I guess, we get to those... For the folks that are on the line, definitely check out YouthCITIES online at youthcities.org. Check out YouthCITIES's Facebook page as well: facebook.com/youthcities. A couple of the questions that I've seen come by here... One has to do with programs for school. “Does YouthCITIES have programs for schools, and what are they?”
Vicky Wu-Davis: Yeah. I have four out of school programs that are enrichment programs. Some of those are the ones that have radiated outside of Massachusetts.
I also teach in school, and am working with some schools on professional development aspects so that we can actually... The teachers are the ones that are the frontline, interacting with students. They are one of the biggest influencers. Sometimes the parents are their first; sometimes it's actually the teachers that are the first and foremost the influencers of what students and young people are exposed to, and what they become. There's a couple of different ways that we do work that we can help. There's the licensing, the curriculum; that is one way that we have expanded out.
There's also custom ways that we work in schools, or within classroom teachers, or working with principals and superintendents to figure out how to we not necessarily teach this and have the teachers regurgitate in a way where...
Entrepreneurship in some ways is another language. For me to teach you Chinese and then you're conversationally fluent and then say, "Hey, go teach it." That's a whole 'nother leap. There's ways to infuse that entrepreneurial thinking in any subject, in any class. How do we leverage existing faculty within their existing classrooms? We do have PD — professional development — that trains the teachers to be able to take what they know best and incorporate some of that into their classrooms, so that when the kids get exposure to that, they will benefit from that alone, but that may end up intriguing them to explore a little deeper, and maybe outside their classroom as well.
Francis Vigeant: That's great. Will they be able to find that information at youthcities.org? About the professional-development programs?
Vicky Wu-Davis: No, that would probably be better if they email me. I don't see my... You can feel free to give my email address out too.
Francis Vigeant: Okay. I'm sure there's probably a contact area too on the website.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Yeah.
Francis Vigeant: They can check under there. Another one is the Chinese STEM program you were talking about, is that something you've just done for your children? Is that something that's available online? What's the name of it?
Vicky Wu-Davis: I haven't really publicized it, because I created it for my own kids out of a necessity, because there was nothing on the market that... I've bought books and DVDs and sent them to classes within a decent, drivable radius. Nothing works for my kids. For the past few years, I run it... I actually hire a native speaker. I love being a TA [more than] main teacher. We have [...] Chinese kids who've been involved in the program over the years. It's something that I haven't... I actually got contacted by my town to teach it as an offering over the summer. I agreed to teach it every year for one week.
I don't have anything online; it's not something I promote. Once my kids are old enough, which this year may be the last year... It's a lot of work. It's a labor of love. I'm not going to continue doing that. I do have all the curriculum on file, and there's things that... I've been asked that before. I might end up, even if I don't run it myself, I might end up putting it in a format, and figuring out a way to distribute it so that it can benefit others, and it doesn't have to be Massachusetts.
Francis Vigeant: Okay, great. Here's our last question: “What has surprised you most about working with youth through YouthCITIES?”
Vicky Wu-Davis: Gosh. They surprised me a lot. All the time.
I think their creativity. And how receptive they are to trying to figure out how to ... I guess just the amount that they can do. Not that I'm underestimating them, but I have some students who have a provisional patent filed. They're middle school kids.
Francis Vigeant: Wow. Wow.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Just the amount... It surprises me how passionate they are and what they can do at this age. I keep telling myself I'd better keep in touch with these kids, because these kids are going to change the world, and I want them to remember me when they're all grown up. I'm just this little dinky person.
I have one team of students that's working on wearable technologies devoted to helping people with disabilities. Another one that I said has the provisional patent. Another one ended up taking the love of her hometown, which she felt was often wrongly and unfairly viewed negatively, and focused on the crime and other things that were not so good about it. She absolutely loved the city that she calls home, and she combined her love of journalism and all that kind of stuff to create a publication. Learned a lot of — had lots of ups and downs.
She ended up running it — starting it as a sophomore in high school, running it to the point where any high school kid who wanted an extracurricular activity that was known to be for high-achieving kids, they all ended up volunteering and working in her publication. Just like a magazine, it gets bigger because you get advertisers. She ended up getting lots of different advertisers, including large vendors and universities, paying for advertising in her publication. It ended up getting... I think they got mentioned on PBS one time. From what I understand, they were also contacted, and I think they might be in [...] textbooks or something. She's now a senior in college, and she ended up after five years, including running it remotely for a while from out west, even though it started in the east coast, she's now advocating for every single minority... She's originally from Kenya, but it could be an Asian issue, or another issue. Any kind of minority, she stands up for that. I swear, she's going to be part of the United Nations one day.
I am surprised, but I'm not. I shouldn't be. But it wows me, just the conviction that these students have, and how hungry they are for an outlet.
One student of mine had said that he had all these ideas, and all these different things that he wanted to do. He's extremely bright, and raised a bunch of angel money for his venture not too long ago. He got accepted to Penn, and deferred a couple times while he's working on [...] ventures. He had mentioned that, for a while, he had no outlet and didn't know what to do with all those thoughts and all the things that he wanted to do. And had told me that he was in this little period of depression for a while, because he had no place to figure all that out.
All that conviction and excitement and creativity that these kids have... I guess I'm amazed at the amount of creativity and the amount of passion that they have. I think that still surprises me, even as I'm impressed and humbled at the same time.
I think I earlier mentioned that anybody is a subject-matter expert. If they spent a lot of time focusing on something they love, or know, or have personal experience in; and the experience could even be hardship or something like that. The passion that comes from that — from finding that, even if it's not initially evident — is so very strong. So many times people try and imitate someone they see because of the amount of money that they make. Sure, you can do a lot of good, and you can earn a lot of money. It doesn't matter to me what your motivation is; I hope that you will be economically successful [and have] longevity. I hope that, at the same time, you will also think of how you can strategically impact your community, and that those two things don't have to be mutually exclusive.
At the end of the day, if you find what you're passionate about, and leverage your skills with it, and figure out how to combine all these things together, it's like this recipe. Sometimes you have certain ingredients, and if you just find the right recipe to make it work, the potential that these kids have to do great things is amazing. The trajectory that it puts them on... Once they get on the path, you can't get off. You might take a break, and you might do something else; not to say that they're going to be on this mindset 100% of the time. The kids, they don't forget these experiences. From the beautiful notes that I would get from these kids, or students who go off to college, and then I think that they're gone, and then they come back and contact me and ask if they can help mentor the other kids, and tell me the new things that they're doing...
Planting that seed is... Believing in them as a serious contender, and not some pet project that you're just hoping to impart some knowledge in and hope that it sticks; it really does stick. Whether it's classroom, whether it's entrepreneurship, out-of-school stuff; if you figure out what makes the kids tick, and there's always something that makes them tick. The hard part is trying to figure out what makes them tick. Some of them don't even know that. If you help them to discover that, then their learning all floods in. You've found something that engages them, and it means something, and it's relevant, and they're like, "Oh, now tell me how to do this. You've found something that clicks with me, and I want to absorb all this other knowledge to help elevate this thing that I'm very passionate about."
I wouldn't discount something as frivolous as a video game or fashion, or anything else that may not be something that we see eye-to-eye as something that's important. That could be the catalyst that gets them to think about something.
I had this girl in class who wasn't necessarily someone that initially a teacher would say was STEM-inclined. We were talking about what she could do that interested her. She loved hiking. She also loved social media. I'm not a big social-media person, but she loves posting things and doing stuff. One of the troubles that she had was when she goes on these hikes to these beautiful scenic areas, she wouldn't be able to have the right connection to be able to post her stuff. That ended up catalyzing her interest in "Why not?" Then she wanted to address that. Whether or not she'll figure that out now, or later, or...
She ended up getting an interest in technology because the obstacle to something else that wasn't technologically related was a STEM subject. She ended up getting a lot of help from a lot of technical people in my mentoring network, and has this newfound love of technology. I had another girl who… I have another program that teaches entrepreneurship within the context of a large organization; how do you be entrepreneurial within a large organization? We teamed up with Boston's Children's Hospital to do that. This one young lady had never really thought about going into the sciences because she was squeamish about blood, and didn't want to cut people open. That was her wording.
Then, when she realized all the medical innovation that was involved, and she was intrigued by technology enough, she was like, "Oh, this might be a field that I'd be interested in considering. There's so many cool things that you can do to help people. And it doesn't require being in surgery." She didn't know that before. I guess just continue to allow yourself to be surprised by just how many things that these students might be interested in; even if you don't think they are. I sometimes feel that we will categorize someone, or pigeonhole somebody, based off of our slice of experience with them and think that the student wouldn't be interested in a particular subject.
Francis Vigeant: Sure.
Vicky Wu-Davis: Because of our one-angled interaction with them. I'm always surprised by how untrue that is and how it can uncover. I've had teachers who said, "Oh, you know, I don't think that student will be interested in entrepreneurship." Or, "I don't think they would do well in your class because look at all of the high-achieving, smart kids." I'll see something in that person, and I'll be like, "Well, that person is a thirsty learner; they are so hungry to learn. It's not necessarily in that way, but put them in this program and I'll show you that that side will come out." I've seen teachers who were surprised. I think just be open to being surprised by what these kids would also be interested in, because I guess I'm constantly surprised by what they end up being interested in, even if it may not seem like it's something that they would be. Just because they either haven't been exposed to it, or haven't had the right context that connects those dots to make it interesting for them.
Francis Vigeant: Sure. Thank you so much. I appreciate all your time today. I know our audience, I'm sure, appreciates as well everything you've shared. I think it's great to be able to speak with and ask questions of an innovator — somebody who's gone down the path themselves. Especially in your role in YouthCITIES, and helping really inspire the next generation of innovators through your work. For everyone who's out there, I just want to let you know again: Youthcities.org. Facebook.com/youthcities.
Thank you again, Vicky. If you'd like to visit KnowAtom as well, you can stay connected to us through blog.knowatom.com, facebook.com/knowatom, or Twitter handle @knowatom.
Thank you so much.