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Students in University of the Pacific’s Educational Entrepreneurship program work to find new, innova-tive ways to enhance K-12 education.

Students in University of the Pacific’s Educational Entrepreneurship program work to find new, innova-tive ways to enhance K-12 education.

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Pacific driving educators to design innovative approaches to K-12 instruction

New program encourages entrepreneurial thinking to enhance education
Jan 16, 2019

Start with people who want to color outside the lines and apply their freewheeling spirit to the world of education.

That's what's happening on University of the Pacific's Sacramento Campus where a small group of graduate students enrolled in the Gladys L. Benerd School of Education's new Educational Entrepreneurship program is learning how to change the way traditional schools operate for better results.

"The goal is to give students skills and let them figure out how they want to impact education," said Program Lead Brett Taylor, who designed the curriculum and teaches some of the classes.

Taylor believes the entrepreneurial focus of this two-year master's in education program launched in August makes it one of only two in the United States.

Skills students learn in University of the Pacific's Educational Entrepreneurship program will allow them to change the way traditional schools operate for better results. 

Since the program is tailored to students who work, most of the instruction takes place online, and once a month classes are held on campus Friday evenings and Saturdays.

Students become acquainted with concepts such as "lean startup" and "design thinking," approaches to innovation that fly in the face of how educational institutions historically have operated, Taylor said.

Instead of letting past practices dictate how decisions are made, students in the Educational Entrepreneurship program are coming up with new tactics.

Perhaps that means opening an elementary school or adopting cutting-edge techniques in the college classroom; maybe it's establishing a nonprofit that, although not directly involved with instruction, supports education by providing after-school activities, Taylor said. He noted that one student in the program is developing a website where users would pay to watch high school sports, generating revenue for schools.

Rachel Minnick, the executive director of a Sacramento nonprofit that enlists volunteer tutors to boost children's reading ability, enrolled in the master's program after looking for one that offered the chance to discuss inventive ways of improving schools and learn from fellow students.

"There's got to be a better way to educate children," she said of the status quo. She said Pacific's curriculum includes real-world examples of creative projects that others are doing. "It's not an ivory tower."

In one of the courses, classmates brainstorm ways to deliver what students need and then repeatedly test those ideas to refine the solution, a process called "design thinking" that starts with the end-user.

"It's like getting data, building something, testing it out and then trying again. It's a very iterative process," Taylor said, adding that too often educators introduce changes affecting students without ever consulting them.

He recalls the time that a school he was working with decided to overhaul the way it used the homeroom period; it proposed asking teachers for their ideas until he suggested inviting students to staff meetings so they could weigh in as well.

Students in University of the Pacific's Educational  Entrepreneurship program brainstorm ways to deliver what students need and then repeatedly test those ideas to refine the solution, a process called "design thinking." 

A similar tactic called "action research" calls for educational entrepreneurship students to do something after exploring a topic ─ analyzing test scores, for example, and then coming up with a way to improve them ─ as opposed to summarizing their findings and leaving it at that.

Students also learn how to communicate their goal to an organization, persuade it to accept new ways of doing things and then expand the reach of that support.

That's what kindergarten teacher Jamie Spatt is hoping to do with the software that teachers and students at her San Francisco school are using.

The leadership skills she'll be acquiring in the educational entrepreneurship program could help her market the technology to classrooms elsewhere, she said.

As the name suggests, educational entrepreneurship also shares the dynamics of a startup company that experiments from the get-go, discovers what works and what doesn't, and then fine-tunes its product right away instead of spending lots of time and money developing an idea before seeing whether it's actually viable, Taylor said.

In the realm of education, students are the customers and educators have daily opportunities to test new strategies, he said.

Educational entrepreneurship embraces the ground-level pioneering work that's characteristic of fledgling companies rather than focusing on effecting change through state or federal agencies, Taylor said. The problem with government's conventional method of enacting laws and policies is that it emphasizes what schools should be doing instead of showing them how to do it, he said.

"There's this thought that change happens from the top down but most of the research says that innovation happens from the bottom up," he said, citing the humble beginnings of Google, Amazon and Facebook. "Innovation happens in small spaces."

Assistant Dean for Sacramento Programs Rod Githens, who came up with the idea of the program, says his fondest hope is that in a few years the curriculum will have prepared many more to apply creative solutions to the challenges education is facing.

"My dream would be that we would have change agents throughout California making a difference in the lives of students," he said.

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