Identify a problem in the world and come up with an idea to solve it.
That’s what kids across New York City are doing as part of Big Idea Week, which kicked off Monday. Kids in 4th through 8th grades are matched with mentors from places like Facebook and Etsy and will spend the week working in groups to develop business ideas.
Big Idea Week began in 2013 as a collaboration between Brooklyn’s DUMBO Improvement District and Flocabulary, which uses hip hop to teach kids about things like dividing fractions or the history of ancient Egypt. This year, the program expanded to 10 schools around the city.
“It’s my goal that this week is enough to create a spark that keeps them on a path of wanting to get into the STEM and tech fields,” said Flocabulary CEO and co-founder Alex Rappaport.
The program started at P.S. 307, a public school in Brooklyn that serves mainly underprivileged students who live in public housing. The school’s principal told Rappaport that many of the kids have never left the block where they live. It’s very different from the surrounding neighborhood, which is filled with art galleries, sleek startup offices and cafes.
Rappaport said there’s a stark difference between the kids’ problems and those of the tech community (“problems for rich people,” like where to get a cab when the bars close).
In previous years, for example, kids have come up with products to deal with litter on the street and a jacket that signals when danger is approaching.
Rappaport said the 4th graders also have a lot of imagination without the self-consciousness that sometimes holds adults back.
“They are willing to step out and say, ‘You know what? We need a robot that helps you tie your shoes.'”
In the last two years, one product from each Big Idea Week has been selected to be prototyped. The first was a pillow and blanket combo perfect for staying warm on long bus rides. Another was an app, called Fashion Zip-Zap, that knows all your clothes and suggests outfits.
“The problems are so well thought out. That’s what makes these products so rich,” Rappaport said.
Mentorship is a big part of Big Idea Week, and at the kickoff event Monday, 40 mentors from various tech firms talked to the kids about what they do.
Tom Takigayama, 34, a product designer at Etsy, is one of them. He introduced the company by showing the type of things you can buy on the platform, including a bean bag in the shape of a napping grizzly bear, and a sleeping bag that looks like a huge piece of pizza.
The kids were impressed. One wanted to know how much you would need to buy the grizzly bear bean bag. (Answer: $215.)
Takigayama was looking forward to mentoring the kids throughout the week and hearing their big ideas on Friday.
“It’s great to have unfiltered creativity just coming at you,” he said. He works on Etsy’s payment platform, which has a lot of regulations and parameters. “It’s beaten down into me that you have to be realistic. My goal this week is not to be that way.”