Ryan’s story

Last week, Ryan Taylor, a former student who graduate several years ago came to see me. He said: “I want you to know that I have used your class material to teach high school students about entrepreneurship.” He saw my surprise and explained: “After graduate, I worked for a software company, and in my spare time, I volunteered to mentor high school students in mathematics. These were students that had problems in school, and some were labeled “Lazy or slow learners.” To encourage them to study, I told them about the possibilities of starting a company.” As it was a quite unexpected story, I asked him to explain more.

Ryan said: “After graduate, we all do well in our career, so I want to give back to the society by a volunteer to mentor high school students. After several weeks of teaching math to the students who were behind in class, I found that they were not motivated to study at all. One day a student said: “What am I going to do with this mathematics? These numbers and equations have no meaning to me. Why do I have to learn math?” That made me think deeply about the way they learn mathematics in high school. Students must know a lot of formulas and equations to solve problems. Many problems were very hard which required a lot of time to solve. That caused some students to hate math or even afraid of math. I thought of the way you taught us about software engineering and entrepreneurship, where you described the purposes and the applications with a lot of examples. Using your teaching approach, I began to talk to them about what they could do with math. When you cared and had compassion for someone, you recognized their anger and frustration. Without proper action, these students will be left behind; many will quit school, become unemployed with no hope and no future.”

I asked: “But why entrepreneur? These are just high school students.”

Ryan explained: “I asked the school principal to allow me to teach a class in entrepreneurship to these students to motivate them to learn math. I used your materials and modified them to fit high school students. In the beginning, students must come up with an idea to start a business, but they must calculate the market needs, how much they could make, the cost and the profits to operate a company. They must learn basic business operation, or in another word, they must learn math. After five to seven weeks, they had to present their business plan to a group of math teachers who will judge them on their business and vote for the best team. You could not imagine how enthusiastic these students were as they learned about the application of math. Now they had a reason to like math because they saw what they could do with it. I taught them statistics and how to predict the market trends, which was not something students would learn in high school, but they loved it. All of them were working hard because they believed someday they could be the owner of a company.”

I was surprised: “Then what happened? How are they doing now?”

Ryan continued: “Other schools heard about the program and wanted to know more. I presented to them my idea of teaching startups as a new way of getting students to learn math, and many principals like it. In every high school, there were students who are labeled “Lazy, no motivation, cannot learn, and failure, etc.” So these schools sent these students to my class where I taught them after school in the evening. I asked several friends who work in my software company to teach them programming, mostly Swift, Java and IOS to develop mobile apps. Eventually, we created a new “Entrepreneurship program” in high school with over sixty students. These students must build mobile apps based on their idea. They had to calculate the time it took to develop the software, the cost if they were working full-time, the cost of running a company, and how much revenue they could make, etc. We believed this would help them to learn more math based on a “simulated scenario.” Every five or seven weeks, they must present their plan to a group of math teachers who will vote for the best team. But to our surprise, some “Angel investors” showed up in the school’s presentation. Some even invested few thousand dollars to their “startups” just to encourage them, although I knew they did not expect much from high school students. Today many of their mobile apps are sold on Apple store and students are very motivated to learn more.”

Ryan laughed: “No one became a millionaire or even make several thousand dollars yet, but it is still a great reward to see these students learn programming, math, customer acquisition, target markets, monetization methods, and business models. Now we have more high school students want to learn programming and entrepreneurship. Last year, our class consisted of “Unmotivated students” who were left behind in class, but now more students want to learn applied math, statistics, and entrepreneurs. This entrepreneurship class fills a gap for students and gives them an opportunity to learn about business concepts in an interesting way. We helped students who were labeled “Lazy, and unmotivated” to have the opportunity to think about what they can learn for their future. Giving them a good reason to learn, and they will see the possibilities.”

Ryan was emotional when he said: “Teaching them to program as the way to make their idea become a reality is a wonderful way to motivate them NOT to afraid of programming. These students can see what they can do with programming rather just some “meaningless lines of code” that they do their homework. We teach them to come up with their creative idea and implement it into a real product. We teach them how to make contacts with customers. Some are their friends who will buy their product. We teach them how to operate their company. You can see a clear transformation from the “Lazy, and unmotivated” to someone who is “Enthusiastic, motivated.” Even some math teachers were surprised, they told us, they never see something like this – “Bottom of the class” students now passes many tests to be better in math. Their parents were also surprised to see how their children changed in a short time.”

Ryan concluded: “We just want to give these students the reason to learn, the motivation to be successful, and the opportunity to control their future. We want this new approach to become a national program that spread to many schools. We believe we can continue to expand our approach to help students. We are now getting more people to volunteer to help high school students in my class. The fact is there are many “Talented students” who only need someone to believe them and help them to achieve their potential. It is sad that our education system often labeled them based on “Pass” and “Fail” by exams, and nothing else. But many of these “failing students” can still be successful if we can help them to learn and get them back to be productive people. We must change the way we motivate students, not by threatening them but by motivating them; not by labeling them but by giving them hope. The reason I came back to see you is to let you know that you gave us the meaning and motivation in your teaching as you always care for us. Now we want you to know that we are following your approach by helping others. As a professor, you have created a learning environment when we can ask questions, discuss different views, and feel comfortable to share many things. We are doing the same with these high school students, and we do well because of what we have learned in your class.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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