At Winter Forum, Students Are Education Entrepreneurs

Three day event had students developing ideas to promote education in U.S., India

Eeshan Bhatt, one of the team that developed the winning student proposal at the Winter Forum, Photo by Kara Bonneau
Eeshan Bhatt, one of the team that developed the winning student proposal at the Winter Forum, Photo by Kara Bonneau

Twelve teams of Duke undergraduates competed in the wee hours Sunday and Monday crafting in 48 hours the best new ideas for improving science and math education in the United States and India.

Inspired by a roster of guest speakers that included two former NC governors, 2014 Winter Forum students at "Rethink Education: The Innovation Challenge" outlined visions for several education initiatives. The top prize went to a proposal for a new website devoted to information exchange and relationship-building between science students in the two countries.

Another winning idea outlined a bicycle repair program that uses bikes to illustrate basic principles of engineering and physics.       

"My overarching goal for the students was to have an intense, interactive, collaborative, team problem-solving experience," said Leslie Babinski, lead organizer and a research scientist in Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy, host for the forum. "Judging from today's presentations, I'm so sure we achieved that.  They did an amazing job."  

A panel of Duke alumni judges that included a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a congressional policy aide, an education foundation representative and a staff member of a national charter school organization, awarded a  first, second and third place prize to winning teams. The winning teams received $1,500, 1,000 and $500 respectively  to donate to nonprofit organizations of their choice.  A "People's Choice" team, selected by the audience, also received $500 to donate.    

STEM Pals's winning proposal, recommended creating a website that shared science and math curricula between the United States and India. The proposal also calls for creating customized science lab kits that use chemistry and math principles to build practical items such as lamps, pumps or latrines.   

Marvin Pittman, the team's faculty mentor and a longtime math and science educator and administrator, said he was pleased that the students included the need to measure outcomes as a part of the proposal.

"STEM Pals was a favorite among all four judges," said Mandeep Dhillon, T '92, a child technology advocate in Silicon Valley who founded an online social community for families. "Their story was really well told. It leveraged a couple of things the winter forum was about -- how to take an interdisciplinary approach and how to incorporate two cultures using technology."   

The annual Winter Forum, started in 2010, is a two-and-a-half day symposium sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Education on a topic of global concern. About 100 selected students return to campus before the start of spring semester to delve into the topic with small groups that include faculty and relevant experts and specialists. 

This year's keynote speaker Maya Ajmera started the Global Fund for Children while a graduate student in public policy at Duke. She advised students to be ambitious about their dreams for doing good. The Global Fund invests in undercapitalized organizations that provide critical services to vulnerable children in developing countries.

Other speakers included NC governors Jim Hunt and Beverly Perdue, who talked respectively about the critical state of North Carolina's public schools and the importance of giving back to society, as well as Dan Kimberg, a Duke alumnus who founded Student U, a Durham-based educational program designed to help local students gain the skills and motivation to pursue higher education.

Members of the STEM Pals team credited the name of their proposal to Perdue, who coached them when they were first describing their idea. "We said, 'pen pals.' She said, 'STEM pals,'" said Eeshren Bhatt. "We owe the governor," added Ishan Thakore with a laugh. "The HONORABLE governor."  

ReThink Education was hosted by the Center for Child and Family Policy and co-sponsored by the Duke Office of Undergraduate Education and the Duke Program in Education. The  Bass Connections Brain and Society group will sponsor Duke's 2015 Winter Forum.

Below: Former N.C. Governor Beverly Perdue encourages the Winter Forum students to getting involved in education.  Photo by Kara Bonneau.