In June 2010, Melissa Pickering launched iCreate to Educate, a learning company providing technological tools, with a strong belief that more hands-on, project-based tools and activities should be a part of the K-12 classroom experience. As a former mechanical engineer at Disney Imagineering, it was painfully apparent to her that not enough young people—particularly women—were streaming into the math, science, and engineering fields. Her own project-based learning experiences in her early schools years were inspiration for her to launch a company focused on providing tools for other students to be creative, hands-on, and excited about (ideally) math and science. Melissa shares her enthusiasm for learning, and her desire to help others find ways to express themselves, engage in their interests and to generate excitement in all things educational.
Melissa: iCreate to Educate conveys that students are able to drive their own learning in the classroom. They are creating—literally, with their hands—projects, and in the process having a rich educational experience.
Victor: What is it, exactly?
Melissa: iCreate to Educate is a learning company, delivering tools that use technology, students’ creative potential, and teachers’ expertise to engage students in a powerful way. The core of our tools was born out of Tufts University, and we will continue to build on this baseline that educational researchers have established.
Melissa: The tool in our portfolio now allows students to build and express their ideas in making stop-motion animation videos. The combination of students working with their hands, using technology to document that process, and building up a visual representation of how they truly see the world, all work in tandem to benefit the learning process. Sample animations that students have made in the past—such as showing how a seed becomes a tree or illustrating the cow’s digestive cycle—can be viewed online here (a placeholder for our coming soon video gallery: www.icreatetoeducate.com/greatesthits). Students using our tool in the classroom can be found in the video on the front page of our website: www.icreatetoeducate.com. The content retention, teamwork skills, and overall engagement are demonstrated through this video.
Victor: How is it unique?
Melissa: There are other stand-alone stop-motion applications available like our product, but the user-interface of those products were designed in such a way that requires the students to learn how to use the application before creating their projects. Our application was designed specifically for the classroom, so there is no learning curve on the technology itself. There are also other online digital animation creation platforms, yet these lack the physical hands-on building component that makes us so unique and effective where students can truly touch, feel, and take ownership on what they’re making.
Victor: Anyone in the same market?
Victor: Any interesting development notes?
Melissa: The current tool was developed beginning in 2005, a concept born out of the son of one of iCreate’s advisory board members—Chris Rogers (pictured, left). Chris is a Mechanical Engineering Professor at Tufts, and the Director of the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. His son—in the fourth grade at the time—wanted to turn in his assigned book report as a movie. After approval from his teacher, he built a book report in stop-motion form. This was the first time that Chris had seen his son actually be excited and engaged in making a book report, so he—being the brilliant engineer he is—quickly built a prototype for his son to more easily make stop-motion videos in the future. Fast-forward a few years, and we have a fully commercialized product that was funded through the National Science Foundation, led by Brian Gravel’s doctorate research in science education.
Melissa: Originally offered as a free download from SAMAnimation.com, we now direct users to download a free demo version of the software, with the option to pay for an upgrade to the full version from www.icreatetoeducate.com.
Victor: How much does it cost and what are some of the options?
Melissa: We are pricing the software in a freemium model, so teachers have the ability to try out the product with their students at no cost, and then if they want additional features (ability to edit videos, etc) they can upgrade to a full version at $25/computer or $300/school. We will be building out a database of subscription-based activity modules associated with student-generated content starting July 2011.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Melissa: We currently have 33,000 download users of the free version, mostly parents and their kids driven to the software through the Klutz Book of Animation (www.klutz.com/animation). While it’s nice there are a lot of at-home users, we are slowly building up more teacher users in the classroom, and have highlighted some of the student examples that have been created here: www.icreatetoeducate.com/greatesthits. There is also a great video on our home page that highlights students at a school in Denver using our product to show how rocks form over time. We recently had the St. Francis School for the Deaf out of Brooklyn, New York City release a journal article about their use of the product in math, science, and language arts (see www.icreatetoeducate.com/casestudies), which is a fantastic testimonial for how our product is very inclusive for all types of learners.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Melissa: The product is particularly tailored for teachers looking for new ways to engage their students within any subject. We typically suggest usage starting at the second grade level on up until college, and while it’s not something that can truly enhance every lesson, it is intended to be an innovative alternative to traditional methods of students expressing their ideas and developing better understandings. Instead of writing a science lab report, show me how the molecules moved as water heated up. Rather than read about how a digestive system works, let’s dive in and create a model, animating each step of the process. These are immersive, hands-on experiences that truly apply across the spectra of both age and subject.
Victor: Very nice! And now for a wider view—how about your thoughts on education these days?
Melissa: I have a more positive outlook than most on education (or what you hear about in the press). I don’t think that the education system is broken. I think there are areas that may need to be improved, but realistically, we have a lot of fantastic things happening, and to say it’s broken is such a vastly negative statement that suggests no one is being educated or learning, which isn’t true at all. We have kids who are extremely savvy, creative, and growing up in a world brimming with information; we have many teachers who are going out of their way to adjust the traditional methods of teaching to meet the needs of their students; and we have access to so many tools and other cultures through today’s technology. All the pieces are there, now it’s just a matter of being creative in how we can connect them to truly improve how learning happens across the board.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating iCreate to Educate?
Melissa: I was always tinkering in my dad’s woodshop growing up, going above and beyond every chance I had to create the best and greatest school project. Remember that kid who would always walk through the door with the masterpiece book diorama? Well, I was that kid. While a lot of my influential experiences didn’t happen in the classroom, I think they should have. I was driven to mechanical engineering because of the hands-on project-based experiences, and then once I was studying mechanical engineering in college, what helped me stay in the field was bringing LEGO-based activities into local Boston K-12 classrooms any moment that I wasn’t studying. It was this application of what I was learning—whether about volcanoes in fourth grade or machine design in college—that I could connect to, and as a result I was engaged, motivated, and whatever the concept was, made so much more sense to me. I even remember when I was interning at Lockheed Martin before I started laying out a bracket I was designing in CAD, I went to the storage room, rummaged around to find a cardboard box, then sat on the floor of the cubicle measuring, cutting, folding, gluing until I had a mock bracket that had the right proportions. While I was amusing to my fellow engineers, that tangible constructing of something helped me design. I would do the same thing when I worked at Disney Imagineering—I probably spent just as much time in the prototype shop or with the coaster maintenance guys as I did at my desk in front of the computer. I’m such a strong believer in making, creating, being a part of anything you do, and wish that all students had those experiences in the classroom. Alas, iCreate to Educate was born!
Victor: Well done! On a similar line, how does iCreate to Educate address some of your concerns about education?
Melissa: iCreate to Educate is a tap into how I think we need to be creative about taking all the pieces that are there—imaginative students, talented teachers, accessible technology—and piece them together in a way that gives students the engaging learning experience they need and will thrive in!
Victor: Very exciting, Melissa! Alright: What’s your outlook on the future of education?
Melissa: The future of education is exciting. I get giddy talking to other edtech entrepreneurs because it’s apparent we are starting to have more and more very intelligent folks focusing on how to creatively put pieces in place so all students have an opportunity that fits with their learning style and the classroom experience is relevant to their needs. I’m not quite sure what it’s going to look like, but I know it’s going to be awesome.
Victor: Last question. What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of iCreate to Educate?
Melissa: The value of iCreate to Educate is in understanding the current constraints on the classroom now and coming up with a unique solution that helps learners now. And then as the system changes, we will change to always be an attainable, affordable way of giving students an opportunity to drive their own learning.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com