Caravel: Disrupting Education

"It’s truly the most rewarding experience to dive into something we really care about."

September 2016

Summary

Albert Zhang from Mountain View High, Abhi Upadhyay from Mission San Jose High, Saagar Godithi from Monta Vista High, and Andrew Hojel from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School aren’t your typical high school students. They met this past summer on MIT’s campus at a summer entrepreneurship program called MIT Launch, and are currently working to revolutionize the education system with Caravel, a learning management platform that enables teachers to track trends in student behavior.


Interview

Q: Tell us more about Caravel!

A: Right now, the education system primarily focuses on test scores and grades, but many schools, especially elementary schools, are trying to concentrate on how their students are holistically developing, which can’t be determined from just numbers. Caravel aims to help them do exactly that.

Through our system, teachers can assess each student based on the characteristics they choose on a scale of one to five stars using half star increments, add comments, and review the data in graphs to see trends. For example, teachers can look at a student’s ethical behavior and how they are absorbing the information, which would help them better understand their students’ performance and write more detailed reports so that parents can learn about how specifically their child is doing in class.

Q: What’s your current progress on the project?

A: We’re conducting our beta trial soon at Andrew’s school in Austin, specifically its elementary school, and we’ll be using it as a proof of concept to conduct research about the features and what teachers like about the system. Afterwards, we plan to share the software with California schools. If we receive positive feedback and see that our product provides value to teachers, we’ll start selling subscriptions to schools!

Right now, only teachers can access the platform, but we’re also planning to develop a student portal so that students can track their progress. Further in the future, we hope to develop a mobile platform and maybe enter into pitch competitions.

Q: What are each of your roles on the team and the experiences you bring?

Abhi: I am in charge of building our beta trial, and I’ve been programming since I was nine. Right now, I’m also working on a few side projects, including an app for my school to organize clubs. In the past, I’ve built tools for developers and mostly focus on back-end development.

Saagar: I’m the designer for Caravel, and I’ve worked on numerous design projects, including t-shirts. Also, I’ve worked extensively with the city of Cupertino to decrease litter in public areas.

Albert: My role is head of finance and communications. Over the summer, I was a marketing intern at a local smart wearables startup, and I worked on outreach and search engine optimization. For a school club called BEAM, I’ve also reached out to local companies to help teach students about business fundamentals.

Andrew is head of operations, and mainly keeps us organized and delegates tasks. He’s coordinating the beta trial with his school right now, and he’s the visionary of the team, always thinking about how we can grow and what we should do in the future.

Q: What inspired you four to start Caravel?

A: We were inspired after reading “Turning the Tide,” a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Initiative. Its goal is to promote the idea that parents and schools should educate kids not just to get them into top colleges, but to become contributors to society. Their main proposal focuses on ethical and intellectual engagement with the broader community, so we wanted to make that the main objective of Caravel and help change the direction of education.

Q: What was the experience spending four weeks at MIT Launch like?

A: From 9AM to noon every day, we would learn about entrepreneurship fundamentals and hear from guest speakers. In the afternoon, we would meet with our teams to work on a business idea that we would pitch at the end of the four weeks, and consult our mentors in mock board meetings. At night, we had free time to socialize and relax.

The atmosphere created by Launch was both collaborative and competitive, and pushed us to grow the idea and as a team. We often asked our friends and mentors for help, but were also competing with fellow teams to overcome obstacles and beat deadlines. It was definitely stressful, especially when we would have 3AM work nights. But looking back on the experience, it was worth it, because we owe much of our progress and growth to that stress.

Launch taught us that the first idea is never going to be final, and without the help of the program, we wouldn’t have known how to pivot from old ideas to new ones. But it wasn’t just about an idea or business. It was also an individual growth program where we learned so much about ourselves and the different types of people around us.

Q: It seems like you four have really enjoyed working on Caravel—what do you love about entrepreneurship?

A: What’s amazing about entrepreneurship is the hands-on experience, which is something that you don’t necessarily get in a school setting. You learn so much from just doing something, rather than sitting and talking about it. Launch’s philosophy is learning from experience and failure, and embracing that was a very different process from our high school classes. It’s truly the most rewarding experience to dive into something we really care about.

Q: What is it like working together as a team? What helped you four continue working after the program?

A: Once we had an idea that we were all genuinely passionate about and wanted to work on, we were willing to commit to it even after the program and through the school year. There’s no perfect idea: every idea has flaws, so it didn’t come down to how great the idea was. It came down to whether we cared about it and wanted to work on it together as a team.

What really helped was defining an overall plan at the end of Launch. Since then, we’ve been keeping each other accountable over Facebook and communicating regularly to make sure that we’re all finishing up our tasks by our weekly meetings, and we’ve started meeting with our mentor regularly as well.

Q: Who is the mentor helping you out?

A: At Launch, we reached out to Natalie Abeysena, a recent graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We’re still in contact with her and give her regular updates on what we’re working on. She gives us feedback on our features, helps us clear up confusion, and generally guides us in the right direction. We’ve learned that it’s important to have a mentor who has experience in the same field you are working in. Natalie’s working on her own ed-tech venture right now, and she’s provided us with valuable information and connections in the industry.

Q: What advice would you give to high schoolers who are also starting a project?

  • Don’t be afraid to fail!
  • Learn how to email—keep it under four sentences, use a lot of spaces, and make sure the last sentence is direct (don’t be ambiguous about what you want!). One of our friends emailed the same person as we did for help, and we got a response while he didn’t. It was probably because of the way we wrote our email.
  • Realize that you have the power to do anything. The most valuable thing that Launch gave us was confidence in our abilities. Don’t be afraid to leave your bubble, contact others for help, and leverage your resources.

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