Being a “Katalyst”

By Sonia Salunke & Ishika Narain, Girls Innovate! Teen Committee

Technology has changed the world of education for the better. Now, many who don’t have abundant resources (and even those who do) can use online tools, ranging from educational videos to classroom platforms, to games and reading materials, for enhancing their learning.

One such powerful tool is Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization created in 2006 by educator Salman Khan to provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” Among the over 6,000 videos are an entire math curriculum which not only goes through K-12 math in depth but also include practice exercises, assessments and a coach tool for parents, teachers and anyone else to support a student’s progress. We are extensive users of Khan Academy and over the summer had the unique opportunity to help other students enhance their learning through the use of Khan Academy.

Although technology use among students is rampant in Silicon Valley, there are many pockets of our community where limited time and resources make it difficult for students to access valuable free online tools like Khan Academy. We became aware through a project in which we recently participated through Girls Innovate!, a local non-profit organization supporting girls for innovation in leadership, that getting students to use Khan Academy requires computers (which many still don’t have) and access to individuals who could help guide them through the platform and motivate them.

We joined the Girls Innovate! Teen Committee in December 2013. Teen Committee members are supported to initiate an innovative social impact project that creates educational opportunities for other kids in the community, something which really aligns with our interests.

After attending the “Rapid-Fire Q&A with Sal Khan” session hosted by Girls Innovate! in September 2013, followed by a volunteer info session at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Silicon Valley, Sonia approached Uyen Kry, the founder of Girls Innovate!, with curiosity about how to impact a local community organization on a larger scale than just individual peer-to-peer tutoring. Uyen recalled a comment by Mr. Khan that girls in this area are poised to take Khan Academy to the next level, perhaps forming clubs at their schools. She encouraged Sonia to give the comment some thought, and Sonia came up with the idea of bringing Khan Academy to the Boys & Girls Clubs. As the idea developed further, Sonia and Uyen reached out to the rest of the Teen Committee for assistance and was fortunate to have Ishika step up.

In March 2014, the two of us met with Esther Cho and Naomi Davidson of Khan Academy to tell them about the idea and obtain feedback on implementation. Sonia also reached out to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Silicon Valley, who indicated interest in being part of our experiment. After communicating back and forth for a couple months, in early June, we were delighted to learn that Romina Roman, the director at Alum Rock Clubhouse in San Jose, was willing to let us pilot a Khan Academy program during the summer at her clubhouse.

With Romina’s support and the guidance of Murrayl Berner from Khan Academy, we piloted the program during the eight weeks of the summer camp at Alum Rock. We worked with a group of thirty-seven 8-9-year-old students. The students were allotted time in the computer room of 45 minutes each day and we set the students to work on missions based on the respective grade each had just completed in school.

We thought that it was wonderful to get first-hand experience of not only what it was like to pilot a program, but how to work with young kids and adjust the programs to meet the needs of the clubhouse. For example, the clubhouse had only eleven computers on which the students could access the Khan Academy website, so at first the students took turns and were given ten minutes per day. Immediately, we observed that that was not enough time – by the time the students logged in and did a couple problems, time was up. We suggested to Romina that the students be split into three groups, with each group getting a full 45-minutes once or twice a week (instead of ten minutes per day). Romina agreed and the new arrangement allowed the students to finish more mastery challenges and get through their missions quickly.

Over time, the kids became more and more comfortable with using Khan Academy, and many looked forward to their Khan Academy time. They were excited to earn badges and energy points on their Khan Academy portals every time they completed certain goals. We suggested to Romina that a pizza party be held at the end of the summer for those who earned 50,000 energy points. Amazingly, many of the kids got over that number, and Romina held a wonderful party to celebrate the kids’ hard work and enthusiasm. When the students were asked about what they thought of Khan Academy, they said that it was really fun, that they enjoyed earning badges, and that they liked learning math. This made all the hard work worth it!

We went to the clubhouse every week to work with the students, helping their counselor in the classroom, Belen,  who was an important resource for us. At the same time, we had regular calls with Uyen, our mentor at Girls Innovate!, and Murrayl, our mentor at Khan Academy. We both learned a lot from the process and appreciated the support and guidance of not just their mentors, but also their collaborators at the Alum Rock house – Romina and Belen – who gave them great freedom and flexibility, not to mention immense time and trust.

We are proud to be the first girls in the Girls Innovate! Teen Committee to carry out an innovative social impact project. We called it “Katalyst” and hope it will inspire many more girls to dream of and carry out innovative solutions for our communities.