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Morning Person: David VanEsselstyn

(Photo by Bekka Palmer.)

David VanEsselstyn designs tools to help people learn and think.

Always tinkering with computers growing up, David quickly found himself developing programs with his friends on an Apple 2 by the age of twelve. David majored in Biology, English, and Environmental Studies at Tufts University before moving to the San Francisco Bay area where he bounced between a number of jobs from the San Francisco Review of Books to driving a truck for the Odwalla juice company.

After observing an after-school program organized by his friend Shawn Mishler, David had the idea to create a place where kids could come and learn how to make robots. A regular attendee at CreativeMornings/New York, David saw Ji Lee speak on the power of side projects, giving him the final push he needed to start the Brooklyn Robot Foundry.

Brooklyn Robot Foundry offers weekend classes, week-long summer sessions, and a Sunday night “Girls Club”. It allows kids to tinker, explore, play and learn in a creative, encouraging atmosphere.

We spoke with him a bit about his experiences and what he learned.

CM: How did you initially come up with the idea for the Robot Foundry?

David: I had been in the field of educational technology for quite some time, maybe twenty years. I was a professor of educational technology for a while and worked with a friend, Shawn, who led an after school program teaching kids how to do robotics. After studying theory around eduction, for about ten years, and really seeing something that was directly in line with my vision of what technology can do for education—It was pretty incredible.

Some of the things I saw in this after-school program were kids coming in after school, coupling up, working in pairs. Shawn would give them a task, like, “Build a robot to go across the room, look for a ping-pong ball, pick it up, and slam-dunk it in this trashcan.” The kids would turn back to their station, talk about what they were going to do, and then do it.

He was very good at structuring the experience, but not with a heavy hand. They gained just enough skills to do the task and were motivated to go to the bins, pick out the tools they needed. One would start programming, the other would be building a scoop, then they would put it together. Magical things happened.

There were a few things that were very good. There was cooperation and communication. There was purposeful use of programming; the program was taught in the context of a meaningful challenge. There was healthy competition and iteration. They would try and try again, which taught persistence.

I think that was the genesis of the idea. I had that idea in mind when I had lunch with a friend, Jenny Young, a mechanical engineer, and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make a place where kids can build robots?” I had told a lot of people that idea over the years who said, yeah, that would be cool, but with Jenny, her eyes lit up when I said it. She said we had to do it.

Around that same time, I went to a CreativeMornings talk with Ji Lee and it was unbelievably inspiring. One of the things he said that really stayed with me was that even though he had this corporate job, which he loved, he would always have about eight side projects going on at the same time. That really hit a nerve for me. I thought, if this guy can have eight side projects going on at one time, then I can have one.

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CM: What do you do now?

David: I am director of design and user experience at a company down the street called Amplify. We build educational technology. It’s awesome.

CM: What was a project or experience that really clicked for you and let you know that you were doing what you wanted to do?

David: Right when I moved back east, I went out with that same friend, Shawn, and we were having Middle Eastern food and talking about how different foods got to our table. We talked a little bit about local versus distant agriculture, how expensive it was to bring pineapples to the mainland. It’s a complicated equation. Over that lunch we brainstormed and came up with this idea for an internet-based curriculum project called the “Pineapple Project” (1995). We helped home-schooling classrooms across the United States who would do curriculum projects and collaborate across the country together. Kids would calculate how much energy it would take to ship a crop (like pineapples) to their schools, and compare and discuss those results online.

It was a lot of fun. A lot of projects will be theoretical, or not get a lot of traction, but this project immediately comes to mind as one where I was immediately working with teachers, collaborating and iterating with them.

CM: Amazing. Does it still exist?

David: I don’t know I would have to search for it. I would be interested to know.

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CM: Was there anyone along the way who helped you?

David: My advisor in graduate school, John Black, was very supportive. One person that comes to mind, however, is Frank Moretti, who just died within the last several weeks. He was a professor at Columbia and was also the executive director of The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching & Learning. He was a really great character. He thought you could teach a class using just great books–no technology. He was a creative thinker and very supportive of me over the years. He was someone who just loved life, an inspiring person to be around.

And then of course that colleague I’ve mentioned twice, Shawn Mishler. He has been a really inspiring collaborator and friend.

CM: What were some of the first steps in making the Robot Foundry?

David: We initially had lunch in March and we both had full-time jobs at the time. We had a series of meetings that were brainstorm-y and one exercise that we did was based out of a book called “Business Model Generation.” Jenny and I did that pretty early on within the first five times we met. It was useful in terms of getting everything out there and really helped us separate the wheat from the chaff.

Pretty quickly we realized what was “Mission Critical”—or part of our real goal, which was to have a presence at Maker Faire. We lined everything up for that. We were very iterative, or “Lean”; Really the things we were doing were not about making money necessarily, it was about learning. That was the criteria.

Our stars were aligned and Microsoft supported our initial booth, which turned into this big space. We were able to brainstorm activities for kids and sign up kids for classes. It was very much a validation of the idea. We had enough wherewithal to actually come through and build great classes and got great feedback.

Our metrics of success were: Do we like doing it? Do the kids like doing it? Do the parents value it? Everything we did we looked at with those things in mind.

CM: What were some of the biggest lessons that came out of this?

David: While Jenny and I were friends, she was also somebody that I worked really hard with. We worked at the same company and we both really had our shoulders to the wheel on a few projects together. I think that was one lesson. As you start something with someone, look for someone is not only friendly, but know what they are like to work with.

In the early stages, really value learning over revenue. Set things up so that you validate what you’re doing early on and iterate.

I think also, you read this a lot, but don’t be afraid to change your business model or your ideas along the way. Different opportunities will fall into your lap if you’re working hard and those serendipities can be more important than any plan. It’s important to plan, but you have to be able to diverge away from that plan, too.

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CM: Jumping off of that, what are three things you believe in now?

David: I would say one is: Along these lines of side projects, I would say that, it sounds very trite, but just do it. It can be scary. There can be some inertia at first, but the value in learning that you get out of it is awesome.

I believe that kids, when it comes to technology and creation making in kids, kids are remarkably well-behaved when they’re engaged in something that they like doing. I think that you need a balance of structured and unstructured, but you’d be amazed on how what we anticipate would be major behavioral issues really diminished when we created really good lessons.

Then the third thing I believe is as you endeavor to work on a project like this, it’s bound to come off the wheels at times. It’s important to set periodic check-ins and communications with everyone you’re working with. The initial exercise I did with Jenny was excellent originally and I think it’s important to have those check-ins around mission and vision of a project and build those into your schedule and your life. Otherwise, you lose the forest for the trees.

CM: Are you still involved with the Robot Foundry?

David: Well, a nice full circle was that my daughter, Hazel, just went to a week of Robot Foundry camp. She’s been to rock climbing camp and circus camp and skateboarding camp this summer, drawing camp, and Robot Foundry was her favorite.

Robot Foundry a bit of a second home for them—so I am to that extent. I used to do a Sunday nights Girls’ Club, where girls and their parents would do projects. I may ultimately teach a class like that again, but I’m not an owner anymore.

CM: What advice would you give to someone just graduating college starting off on a similarly huge endeavor?

David: The reason I left wasn’t not for a love of it. It was balancing family and a day job and this side project. Even though it got to be too much, when you described it as ‘huge’—it never felt huge. It was fueled by potential and imagination, which scales very nicely.

Therefore, my advice would be find the appropriate time and scale you can work on. What is really nice is that it becomes such a life lesson as well as a portfolio piece that even if it doesn’t materialize, and it doesn’t become a public company or your ultimate thing, it’s just a very nice experience to have something that you’ve created yourself. You learn a lot about yourself. It’s a tremendously valuable learning experience.

My advice would be if there’s an idea, and it feels right, figure out a way to make the economical investment of time and money. If not, try again. Try something else.

CM: What kind of projects are you working on now?

David: At Amplify, right now, I am part of a small team that puts together user experience designers, developers, and project managers to try to think about how to build new products.

The Robot Foundry work makes me look at this work as part of the new products team in a more informed way, having been a part of a start-up myself. Amplify has been very supportive. I think it is very large of a company to be supportive of these side projects. Obviously, there can be some issues, but I would hope that other companies can see the value in allowing employees to do this kind of work.

CM: To be able to maintain that balance is pretty difficult. What is exciting to you about the future of technology in educate?

David: We are at a time where in the next ‘x’ number of years—two, ten years—textbooks will be replaced by digital devices. I think along with that technology switch comes an opportunity to transform the materials that get taught in schools.

That is what keeps me interested in this field. At the dawn of every new technology, what really excites me is inverting that paradigm to ask what is the educational change we need to bring about and therefore what technologies can and should we build to usher those in?

I think that is a little bit of where Robot Foundry, for me, succeeded. It was a nice marriage between technology and curriculum. That’s what excites me, to find these balances and opportunities.

CM: Lastly, what did you have for breakfast this morning?

David: Let me see if I can remember.. I had two eggs on pecan nut bread with toast and cup of coffee in my kitchen.

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