Heinz Student Helps Develop Early Education App

Aug 27, 2015

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Social innovation and entrepreneurship are elemental features of the interdisciplinary academic experience at Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon students learn technical and practical skills that place them at the forefront of their respective fields. Then, as developing leaders, they overwhelmingly utilize these skills to help make the world a better place.

At CMU’s H. John Heinz III College, the Institute for Social Innovation (ISI) exists as a resource through which CMU students can use their newly formed skills in areas ranging from policy, management, and health care to data analytics, education, and media to develop cutting-edge tools, ventures, and initiatives for social impact.

“The ISI is where social entrepreneurs at Carnegie Mellon go to conceive of, develop, incubate, and hopefully launch financially sustainable social ventures,” explained Tim Zak, associate teaching professor at Heinz College and Director of the ISI. “These are the kinds of ventures that focus on, for example, basic human needs like food, water, and shelter, but also other socially impactful kinds of ventures focused on things like health care and education, as well as community and economic development.”

To this end, the ISI launched the Social Entrepreneurship in Residence program in 2014, in partnership with CMU’s Community, Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab). The CREATE Lab is a research endeavor of the Robotics Institute in CMU’s School of Computer Science, dedicated to exploring socially meaningful innovation and deployment of robotic technologies.  Through this collaboration, the Social Entrepreneurship in Residence program gives a Heinz College student an opportunity to work with CREATE Lab researchers to develop and market programs that can do demonstrable social good.

“This is the first year that we launched the Social Entrepreneurship in Residence program in partnership with the CREATE Lab,” explained Zak. “The focus for that individual or individuals is to help the lab look at the kinds of technologies that they’re currently incubating or developing, and figure out which of those might be the most viable to either turn into companies or to develop in such a way that they actually could have real-world impact.”

For the 2014-15 academic year, that individual was Manoj Ravi, a second-year Global Master of Information Systems Management (Global MISM) student. Ravi has been actively involved in projects that merge at the intersection of technology and social outreach since his days as an undergraduate student in Chennai, India. For him, the opportunity to collaborate with the CREATE Lab through the Social Entrepreneurship in Residence program was the perfect way to cap his academic experience at Heinz College.

“It gives me personal satisfaction to help people in ways they could help themselves, but they may not be doing it either because they could not do it, or they did not know that they could do it,” explained Ravi. “So I enjoy being the knowledge bridge there between the tools that could help them improve their lives, and the improvement of their lives itself. And I see technology as a great leverage that people could be using in different aspects of their lives. It could be as simple as a line of code in software, or it could be something robotic in its nature which could help their day-to-day activities.”

Message from Me 2

For Ravi’s Social Entrepreneurship Residency, that technology came primarily in the form of an iPad app. Ravi helped develop “Message from Me,” an early educational platform for 3- to 5-year-olds that adapts existing technologies so that young children can record their daily experiences at school and send them to their parents. The goal of the program is to enhance parent-child conversations in ways that impact the child’s feeling of individuality, self-confidence, and well-being.

Message from Me was well into the testing and implementation phase when Ravi became involved with the project, so his primary responsibilities included promoting and marketing Message from Me to prospective users, investors, and distributors.

“We had been implementing this app in schools in and around Pennsylvania and West Virginia,” explained Ravi. “So the scope for me within this particular project was trying to find a partner who would like to take up this opportunity as an entrepreneur and run a business out of it.

“The other aspect for me was to try to scale it up, and to come up with scaling ideas. Because now it is being implemented in parts of two states here, and what would be the plan if you want to scale it across the U.S.?”

Ravi says that speaking with entrepreneurs across the country, gauging and predicting their interest in the product, and learning how to pitch them in an effective way gave him a real-world application of techniques he learned in the classroom at Heinz College.

“Being from MISM program, I was doing a mix of both technology and management,” said Ravi. “So I have been doing courses along the lines of mobile application development, data science, etc. on one side. On the other side, I have been doing courses like financial analysis, accounting, and all of these business aspects of the game as well. So I felt like the Social Entrepreneurship in Residence was an opportunity for me to test my skills that I acquired through the MISM program here at the Heinz College. It was like doing it in the real world, and gaining the real world experience that I could not have gotten from the Heinz College courses alone.”

As the Social Entrepreneurship in Residence program enters its second year at Carnegie Mellon, the need for technological innovation continues to move into the forefront of creating social change in the face of increasingly nuanced global systems that affect daily life.

“Increasingly, technology is having at least a supporting, if not a direct, impact on a variety of social needs in the world,” explained Zak. “So both the ISI and the CREATE Lab are trying to identify the ways that technology can either directly or indirectly support more social cohesion, and a greater ability to fill gaps in societal needs. And the Heinz College, with its emphasis on information technology and the management of technology, combined with a laboratory that is very focused on a variety of technologies including robotics, is a really interesting match.”



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