Five groups of college students won money to develop programs focused on solving problems in Arizona’s K-12 education system during EdPitch at the Phoenix Art Museum Tuesday.
Amanda Gryzewicz, an early childhood education graduate student at Northern Arizona University, won the grand prize of $50,000 for her program called I Can Math. The organization works to implement hands on math related activities in preschool classrooms to improve early foundational math skills.
Christopher Rodriguez, a student at Paradise Valley Community College, won $7,500 from the event’s host organization, Social Venture Partners, for his mentorship idea. Filiberto Vargas, a Teach for America teacher and secondary education graduate student at Arizona State University, won the $5,000 audience choice award for his blended learning technology idea.
The two other groups, both consisting of ASU students, also won $5,000 for their programs.
Social Venture Partners aims to apply the venture capital business model to philanthropy. Teri Calderón, executive director of Social Venture Partners Arizona, said the organization provides mentorship in addition to money and donations to help non-profits become successful and sustainable.
“We put our financial resources together and then we grant out and work with non-profits to help build their infrastructure and make then stronger,” Calderón said. “So, that means we’re also providing our time and talent. It’s not just money. It’s not just for the check.”
Each person or group at EdPitch had only five minutes to pitch their program to a panel of five judges, a format similar to pitch events where startups compete for investments. During the months leading up to the event, students were assisted by mentors and experts who helped them further develop their ideas and presentations.
Social Venture Partners adopted this model from their previous Fast Pitch events where non-profits received two months of training and mentoring and then have three minutes to pitch their ideas to judges for a chance to win money and prizes.
“After seven years, we decided that we wanted to do something a little different,” Calderón said. “We also knew that our partners have a real focus on education as an issue they feel is important. So, we knew this is a topic that would be of great interest, and we wanted to think about what kind of ideas could help change education.”
For EdPitch, Social Venture Partners decided to focus on programs developed by college students because the organization believed as students they would be some of the people who best understood the problems facing K-12 education in Arizona.
“One of our values is to empower those that are closest to the challenge and so we figured that students who are actually going through the system are closest to the challenge,” Calderón said. “The other thing is that we did have a student division in our Fast Pitch program and that’s where we saw true innovation.”
Gryzewicz, the winner of EdPitch, said she came up with the idea for I Can Math while working for an early childhood literacy foundation. After hearing about how little time was spent on math compared to reading in preschool classrooms, she realized more needed to be done to develop early math skills, such as pattern and shape recognition.
According to 2017 AzMERIT results, only 36 percent of eighth grade students were prepared for high school math. Several research studies have shown developing early math skills can improve math and overall academic achievement later in high school.
“It honestly is just about being very simple and basic,” Gryzewicz said. “We’re talking color sorting, shapes, problem solving, following directions. Those are all math skills that we as adults have learned, but children haven’t. So, we have to set a foundation for them.”
Gryzewicz said winning the grand prize continued to encourage her of the importance of early childhood math education.
“The validation that shows like math is important,” Gryzewicz said. “We have to treat it as an important subject. Typically, we don’t look at math until about third grade, because that’s when we start doing state testing. Then we don’t at it again until about eighth grade. So, it’s really important because by third grade it’s already too late.”
Keynote speaker Shane Cox spoke before the student pitches about the importance of innovation in education.
Cox invented the QBall, a dodgeball with an embedded microphone to promote student engagement during discussions. He was featured on the show Shark Tank where he won the favor of three investors.
Cox said developing successful programs and technology for students and classrooms can be especially challenging, but also extremely important because a good education can have a lifelong impact.
“For me it’s because education matters,” Cox said. “It’s not as sexy. It’s not as exciting as other markets, but it has the potential to have impact far and beyond what a lot of other markets have to offer. I mean when’s the last time you met someone that said Uber changed their life?”