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New virtual tutoring platform launches for Houston students, by Houston students

A group of Houstonians have launched a virtual tutoring platform for students in Kindergarten through eighth grade. Image via teachingtogive.org

Seven local high schoolers took lessons from their own schooling challenges in 2020 to launch a free, virtual tutoring program last month with the goal of helping younger students close learning gaps of their own during this unprecedented academic year ahead.

Dubbed Teaching To Give, the project matches kindergarten through eighth grade students with honor roll high schoolers from Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Strake Jesuit, and Bellaire High School for 30- to 45-minute teaching sessions in core subjects, languages, debate, and arts via Zoom.

Kinder HSPVA sophomore Weillison Hsu, who now serves as president of Teaching to Give, first proposed the idea to fellow piano major and Vice President Hayden Miller at the end of the 2019-20 school year. The 15-year-olds are bright, talented, and artistic, but their freshman years had not come without challenges: First, several of their teachers were required to take a leave of absence, leaving them with long-term substitutes. Then COVID-19 hit, making traditional learning impossible.

It took time to adjust, Miller says, but eventually he and his peers found their stride in the tech-based schooling style that Houston Independent School District has been following for months. Still, they feared the transition for younger students had not been as smooth.

"We have been used to that independence, where in elementary school, and middle school even, you do a lot hands on and in person," Miller says. So, they decided to help in a way that was safe, affordable, and approachable.

"During these times, it's just not possible to make sure that everyone is fully striving," Miller says. "We wanted to make it as easy as possible for parents to use us and to have a stress-free environment, to provide a successful education and set up."

Today, Teaching to Give has held more than 100 free web-based tutoring sessions for kids around the city in subjects from science to piano. They ask on-boarding students to complete a personality and learning style questionnaire and place them with one of their 29 tutors who they predict will work best with for their subject matter and interests. Miller says the minor age difference has allowed their sessions to have real impact.

"It provides a more relatable experience," he says. "A lot of the time we'll have the same interests as our students. We can use that to foster mutual excitement for the subject material."

Still, the group is learning how to teach in a virtual setting as they go.

"It really forces you to think of how you say things to get the result that you want," Miller says. "I think we will all come out of this as better communicators."

Miller, Hsu, and the five other board members — Lina Wu, Amy Park, Fiona Condron, Rushil Chetty, and Ashley Chu — plan to continue to focus on virtual tutoring sessions even after the pandemic ends and limitations on in-person learning lift. Again pulling from their own experience, they know that virtual options can provide big benefits for busy parents and students like themselves.

And in the meantime, they're hoping to start partnerships with a few local lower schools, are accepting applications for additional tutors, and are raising awareness for their new initiative, Project Pencil, which will donate art supplies to the Gregory-Lincoln Education Center in the Fourth Ward.

"Art is something that is universal. It takes away the stress of learning. Also, art lessons and music lessons are very expensive," Miller adds. "We wanted to incorporate that into our classes because that's what our biggest strengths lie in. We wanted to share that passion and provide a way to spread more unity between people. Art has a way of doing that."

Teaching to Give founders (Weillison, Hayden and Lina) virtually meeting with Thomas Porter, HISD Magnet Coordinator for Gregory Lincoln. Image courtesy of Teaching to Give

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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