Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sustainability through Business Model Innovation in Education

Marvin Hall, from Kingston, Jamaica, Founder, Halls of Learning, Stanford Digital Vision Fellow, 2006-2007 has a passion for igniting the creativity in children, especially at-risk inner-city youth. His project at Stanford was Stimul-I about engaging kids through hands-on Robotics. After leaving Stanford, Marvin has continued his work in Jamaica and recently he writes about a program he has created "Lego Your Minds Jrs". He has created a model, I think, educators should seriously consider. Marvin writes:

"Being back in Jamaica the past year, I had to focus on rebuilding finances after the fellowship at Stanford but still explored the possibilities of how to expand our Lego programmes here. To that end, we were not able to get funding to take the team to the World Robotics Olympiad and I was forced to rethink my strategy....or better yet, come up with a business strategy for going forward. In March, I started a 3-month programme in the mornings at my son's school using the Motorized Simple Machines Set. The boys and girls responded very well to the activities and were excited to come to school earlier for those mornings. At the end of the term, the programme was mentioned at the school's closing ceremony and the class surprised me with an award for working with them.

In July, Halls of Learning launched "Lego Yuh Mind Jrs", a summer camp for children aged 4-11 years old. While most of our marketing was done through personal emails and spread virally, Jamaica's leading newspaper, The Gleaner, sponsored us with a series of print advertisements. We rented a large classroom and hosted the camp there. In one section of the room, we had the 4-5 year olds working with the Early Simple Machines Set III and in the other section, we had the older kids working with the Motorized Mechanisms Set. Over the 4 weeks of the camp, we had 114 participants. The cost to each participant was about US$100.

In August, I packed the summer camp materials into my car and we took it on tour to 5 at-risk communities. With that, the Lego Yuh Mind Jrs experience was delivered to another 65 children at no cost, as a part of our outreach. It made me realize that there is also a great opportunity to act as a service provider to the corporate and church foundations who have funded community centres in these neighbourhoods. They have the spaces, but there is a shortage of programmes.

There is good momentum to launch a "Lego Yuh Mind Jrs Club" that would be offered as an after-school activity. This will be our next move in the short term.

One of my biggest challenges is to find new activities for the Mechanisms and Early Simple Machines Sets and hence attract repeat customers from the summer camp who feel like they have built all the models already. I will also be ordering the Pneumatics Add-on set. I would eventually like to have my own headquarters to launch these programmes, but renting space will keep my overheads low in the short term.

Lego Yuh Mind Jrs was profitable, portable, mobile, and is scalable.
[Note: "Lego Yuh Mind Jrs" is derived from Jamaican dialect. "Lego" means 'let go' and "Yuh" means 'your'. So Lego Yuh Mind can mean 'let go your mind', 'free your mind' and to many of the children 'build your mind'. Our first robotics workshop in 2004 was called "Lego Yuh Mind", used Mindstorms with Robolab and was for older students. So Lego Yuh Mind Jrs distinguishes this brand for a younger audience and as the stage before robotics programming. The connection with LEGO goes without saying :) ]

Lego Yuh Mind Jrs inspired at least 100 happy parents and made another 100 curious. It is a great opportunity to build on and I can see our sustainability on the horizon."

Congratulations Marvin - great work.

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