Learning is Fundamentally Human: Cornell BigRed//Hacks ‘17 Keynote Address by Deborah Chang

Cornell BigRed//Hacks is the oldest student-run hackathon in the country. This year, 40+ teams worked on hacking together a technology solution for an education problem. I was invited to give the keynote speech as an educator, serial entrepreneur, and community builder. This is a transcript of my speech.



I’m here today to help set you up for success for this weekend. You’re spending Friday, Saturday, and Sunday here and some of you might not be sleeping (but we do want you to shower) so we want to make sure that you have all the tools that you need from an education perspective to make a real difference.

As a side note, I’ve also organized four different hackathons. Every single hackathon has resulted in at least one company that’s gone on to enter Y Combinator, raise millions of dollars, are now in classrooms across the country, so this could be an opportunity to not just work on a project, but to actually start a company.

My goal today is to do three things: The first is to show you just how big the education problems are in this country and therefore how much opportunity there is for you, and you, to make a difference. The second is to share how to approach these problems so that you can create solutions that actually make a difference. And the third is to talk about “What next?”. What can you do, not just at this hackathon, but beyond?

So first, the size of the problem.

A roll of the dice.

Photograph by Aldric Rivat

That’s what determines how likely a child is to receive the education opportunities they need to succeed. This dice is where you live. Roll it. Whoops, you live in South Africa in a shanty town and so as a second grader you go to class but your teacher is someone who can’t pass the second grade math test. This dice is for how much money your family makes. Whoops again. You’re in class and your teacher shouts, “Hey! Pay attention!” But you didn’t eat enough food this morning, so your mind is on your stomach and not fractions.

Every day children are born in this country and around the world, who are born into economic situations or in places where they do not receive the education opportunities they need to succeed. They do not receive the education opportunities that you had in order to come here and be a student who can work in science and in technology to make a difference. And this isn’t fair.

I know this because I myself was lucky. Even though I never invited my friends home because I was embarrassed that there were holes in my wall that my family can’t afford to fix, I did go to a school in a very wealthy district. My teachers were able to find scholarships for me to go to summer camps. They gave me presents during Christmas. They were able to do this because we had so many resources. Even though my parents didn’t go to college [in the US], my friends had parents who did, so I just copied what they did and by the time I was in my senior year of high school, I happened to have gotten the class credit and the test scores I needed to enter Princeton. But if I had lived just 20 minutes away, my life would have been completely different. And so I realized that I was lucky and I don’t think and I don’t believe that anyone should have to be lucky in order to succeed.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-26-17, 2-13-00 PM)

You’re here today on this beautiful campus. You have computers. You’re able to dedicate three days of your life to just learn. That is something that not everyone has. So how were you lucky in your life? Was it because you had a great teacher? Did you have parents that read to you every night? Did you go to an after-school program that made you fall in love with coding? Take a moment to think about that.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-26-17, 2-15-40 PM)

Why? Because there’s been no time more important than now for people to have a high-quality education. This is just one example of why. There are researchers that went ahead and surveyed and tested adults from across the United States to see what their reading levels were and then compared that to the jobs that they had. They found that only jobs with the highest average scores were growing as a proportion of the US economy. People who are reading at the lowest average scores, they were in jobs that were disappearing. These levels, they’re not on a curve. It’s not like you get 40 points out of hundred on the organic chemistry test and then end up with 105 points. They are set levels and everyone should be able to reach the highest level.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (9-11-17, 4-21-24 PM)
The connection between reading proficiency and available jobs

But how many people do you think, what percentage of the US population is actually able to read at this level that allows them to access jobs that are growing? Think about a number, a percentage of people you think can read at this level and then when I say go, I want everyone to just shout out your number.

What is the percentage of people who can read at the level that allows them to access the jobs that are growing? Say it on “Go.” One, two, three, go!

Go on, you guess, too!

Let’s see if you were surprised. The answer is that 13% can. That means that 87% of the US population does not read at the level that allows them to continue to learn and grow as our world shifts, 87%.

I think a lot of you are probably surprised. Even I was surprised as someone who works in education because think about it… we’re all friends with people who are like us. We go to work with people who are like us in terms of educational level. But realize again that you were lucky. You had opportunities that these 87% did not have, because there’s no way that they didn’t work hard enough, there’s no way that they’re not intellectually capable of reading at a level that allows them to access jobs, they just weren’t lucky enough. We need to fix that.

The rest of this talk is about how we might intentionally design technology to solve problems in education. A lot of your sponsors talked about how technology can scale and that’s the main power of technology. I mean if you think about it, now that we have YouTube and cameras, a single person can put together videos that reach millions of people and teach them how to do everything from put on makeup to highlight instances of police brutality so that people would come together and fight for justice.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-26-17, 1-22-53 PM)

I believe that you do this by following what I call the 3 E’s. The first is to empower people who are most impacted by education inequity. The second is to empathize with their experience. And the third is to embrace learning yourself. So let’s go in that order, too.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-26-17, 3-02-22 PM)

Empowering people most impacted by education and equity. What does this mean? This means that we want to give people choice and voice in how they learn and how they act and how they want to impact the world, and the reason you do this is because learning is fundamentally human. Yes, we’re here at a technology hackathon, but we still can’t bore a hole into your brain, insert a chip and give you instant access to Wikipedia. And even when we can, it’s the human brain that needs to make meaning, that needs to apply that knowledge and create new knowledge. So learning is fundamentally human. At one point technology ends and humans begin, and so we need to empower people.

Here is an example of technology that can empower. This is a clip from Codesters, which is a company that teaches middle school students how to code. In full disclosure, it’s a client of mine, which is why I know how the founder thinks. So let’s take a look at a project that one of their students did. This is how Codesters work.

Anyone who uses Codesters can use the platform to code whatever they want. They have choice in what they use and what they want the program to do and then they have voice, too, because this program is actually shareable, accessible to anyone with an internet browser. You can actually take a look at all the student projects that are on Codesters. This project was done in partnership with an organization called Girls Who Code. So we’re now empowering people who, girls who generally don’t have the same access to computer science as boys have traditionally. And because this was a girl who really cared about diversity and about how beautiful it is for us to be inclusive, she was able to use coding, not as something just to learn, but as something to apply to a message that she thought was really important. That’s what it means to empower people — to give them choice and voice to use technology to learn and to create something that they want for themselves.

Now when we talk about empowering, we need to start by empowering learners.

Again learning is fundamentally human, so how can we help people learn if we’re not empowering the learners themselves? But, we also have to empower those closest to the problem beyond the learners. Those are your educators and your families. So Codesters did that as well.

Codesters empowers educators by having different features. One is that they have lesson plans because they know that the most powerful force for change — so that every child can have access to education or a computer science education — is the teachers in every single classroom. So if we give teachers lesson plans then they’ll be able to support their students and if you give them data dashboards then they’ll be able to see which students are going ahead and which student need more help.

This weekend you can use the same cycle to find an idea that you want to do. You can choose to empower a second grade student, you can choose to empower someone who’s trying to switch a career as a learner. You can also empower the families. What are their problems? What are their needs? You can choose to empower policymakers in education. Maybe they need machine learning to go through all the different policies at all the local levels in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t. But how do you empower people and how do you know what they need? That brings us to principle two, which is to start with empathy.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-26-17, 3-02-35 PM)

First we identify a very specific problem and a specific person, and then you observe what they do and why they do it, and then finally you work within their context. Now I’m going to go straight into an example in order to illustrate this. Let’s start with a specific person and a specific problem. Let’s talk about student absenteeism. You are trying to figure out how to get students to stay in school because if they’re not in school then they won’t have opportunities to learn.

Well we have two different very specific people.

Photographs by Shlok Nikhil and Armi Lafiniarivo

We have Gerardo on the left, who’s a middle school student. He’s homeless and lives in Northern California. Then we have Abbo on the right. She’s a teenage girl with limited income in her family and she lives in Uganda. I’m going to give you an opportunity to think about what solution might keep them in school first. Now I’m going to give you a minute to turn to someone next to you and share your idea.

What are your ideas?

Ready to find out what works? In order to solve problems for Gerardo and Abbo, they’re different. So let’s look at Gerardo first. What did Gerardo do? Why did he do it and in what context? Remember. Gerardo is homeless, he lives in a homeless shelter that’s filled with a lot of people and he doesn’t have very much. He moves around from place to place and doesn’t have his own closet, etc. and so one of his biggest problems is actually that he doesn’t have clean clothes and when he doesn’t have clean clothes, he’s too embarrassed to go to school and that’s why he’s absent. So the solution ended up being installing laundry machines in schools and this worked because he’s in Northern California, he’s next to all these different tech companies and Whirlpool decided to come in and say, “Yes, we can donate these laundry machines to you.” This is a hardware hack. And now, Gerardo comes to school two more weeks a year than he did before.

But what about Abbo? Imagine Abbo. She’s a teenage girl and if you observed what she does, she misses class regularly for about four days every month or so. It’s because she doesn’t have access to high-quality sanitary pads and she can only use rags, so she’s so afraid of things happening that she again, doesn’t go to school. So what’s the solution here? It was to create high-quality sanitary pads that are reusable and that are created by local women using local materials. So now all of a sudden it’s not just Abbo who’s being helped and who’s coming to school four more days a month than she did before, but it’s the women as well who now have a source of income. This is a type of technology as well. So two different, two very different people in two very different contexts and so the solution was different. When you’re thinking about what problems you want to work on this weekend, you can go through this learning exercise yourself.

Choose a very specific person.

It’s not just learners, it may be third graders. Let’s say third graders want to go on field trips because they’re so excited and that makes them learn better. Educators also want to take third graders on field trips but it’s really hard to find those opportunities. You have to Google and then you don’t know how to access buses, you don’t know what their schedule is, and then the museums also like them to come but it’s a real hassle to get them scheduled. So the technology solution could be to create a marketplace that’s specifically for teachers to look up field trips by math, by science, if they’re free or they cost money, is there a bus, is there a place for kids to eat, and then build a scheduling software for the museum so that teachers can book their field trips directly on that website. So you find a problem for three different people and then you figure out a way to solve it.

Check out Explorable Places to see the solution above at work.

Another one may be high school students are starting to get their first job and they have no idea what to do with their money. What is a way that you can use technology to help them learn more, save money, and be able to start bringing their families out of poverty? So this weekend if you’re looking for ideas, choose a person, identify a problem, and walk a day in their shoes to figure out why they are having trouble so that you can make the solution.

Finally, you have chosen a person to empower, you empathize with them. But how do you do this? You do this by embracing learning for yourself.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-26-17, 3-02-44 PM)

You do this by assuming you know nothing, right? Assume, actually, that you’re wrong. Back on the absenteeism example, it’s very reasonable to think, “Oh, maybe someone doesn’t go to school because they don’t have a way to get there or because their parents aren’t on them if they don’t go to school.” But, you’ll look for evidence that you’re wrong and when you see evidence that says that you’re wrong, then be willing to change it.

Also, build a diverse community. You are surrounded by people here who have many diverse skills and you need to bring people together in order to create solutions. Like the example of sanitary pads: it’s not just some nonprofit coming in and saying, “Oh, we’re going to give tampons to every single girl,” because that doesn’t fit the local context. It’s that they partnered with scientists to figure out how to create a new product and partnered with local women in order to make it. Similarly, if you’re building a learning app, you want to be able to partner with researchers who can teach you about cognitive neuroscience. You may want to work with machine learning specialists who can say, “If you want to create, if you want to take a look at a whole ton of content, here’s how you can organize that information.” And also you want to make sure that as someone who was lucky, you’re not building for people, but you’re actually building with people.

This weekend is the perfect opportunity for you to embrace learning. I mean it’s basically the best learning opportunity ever, right? Because you’re learning, you’re doing, you’re building, you’re making a difference, and you’re also surrounded by, again, great people. So take advantage of your coaches this weekend. Take advantage of your fellow classmates. Then if you’re working, if you’re building an application for a teacher, I challenge you to go on Facebook or Twitter to find a teacher and say, “Hey, can I interview you for 15 minutes and just learn more about how do you use that or learn more about how you teach financial literacy?” If you’re building something for a child, I mean, don’t be creepy about this, but maybe go to Starbucks and see if you can find a family there, you know, you can talk to the kid and see what they care about. There’s no shortage of ways that you can test out your ideas, even just during this weekend. I encourage you to do it. And again, I encourage you to build relationships with your fellow participants because it doesn’t matter if your solution does go on to be an actual start up. What you can guarantee is that you can walk away with people who will continue to work on these big problems with you.

So what next? You now know that you’re going to empower people, you’re going to empathize with them so you know what their problems are and how to solve them, and that you’re going to embrace learning for yourself in order to do this. But what next? What I encourage you to do is to not think about education just this weekend. See, the world has no shortage of big problems to work on. We’ve got poverty, we’ve got finance, we’ve got health, we’ve got housing and they’re all interrelated. That child who didn’t have enough to eat, he’s going to have a hard time learning. The person who has asthma and can’t access health care, they’re going to miss school. In the same way, education affects these other problems. The mom who knows how to read, her kid is 50% more likely to survive age 5. Someone who learned all about the environment and became a scientist, that person is now able to work and solve problems in the environment as opposed to being someone who again, doesn’t have access to educational opportunities and doesn’t have access to making a difference in the world.

The thing though, is that again, learning is fundamentally human, and that’s what sets education apart from any other issue.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-26-17, 2-28-12 PM)

There might be a time when scientists have figured out how to create a building that is completely green no matter what you do and so you don’t have to make this conscious choice to save energy because scientists have figured out how to make it happen anyway. But at no point will machines be able to completely replace the process of learning and the process of teaching. So you’re needed. All of you are needed.

When you go back next week, find an education event on campus and just go. You need diverse inputs. You might learn something new. Look for opportunities to mentor people— there are clubs, there is online tutoring — and specifically focus on mentoring people who are different from you, because they’re the ones who are part of 87% and who need you to create the learning opportunities that make it possible for them to succeed.

My hope is that the next time someone asks, “So what percentage of the population do you think is able to access economic opportunity because they have education opportunities?”, I hope the answer is 100%.

Screenshot of Google Chrome (10-30-17, 3-44-18 PM)

Group of Friends Smiling
Photo by hepingting.

Thank you.



Special thanks to the following people for working with me through drafts of this speech:

  • Craig DiFolco, who helps tech and business professionals improve their presentations, pitches, and public-speaking skills through brain-based storytelling;
  • Tom O’Connell, the Interim Executive Director at Code/Interactive;
  • Roger Osorio, a learning Strategist, executive Coach, & speaker; and
  • David Fu, the Chief Operating Officer at Streetlight Schools, where they are developing creative, curious, imaginative, problem-solving, playful and loving children ready to become dynamic citizens the world needs.  

And a final shoutout to the Cornell BigRed//Hacks Organizing Team! You changed lives that weekend. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s