Two Socratics Labs startups that want to make the classroom more like the real world

At the inaugural demo day for the New York-based ed tech accelerator Socratic Labs on Thursday, I heard plenty of compelling pitches from education entrepreneurs set on conquering student debt, using cutting-edge cognitive science to build educational apps and bringing big data and machine learning to literacy. But one of my favorite themes was the idea of using technology to collapse the wall between the classroom and the real world.

Between smartphones, social networks and the easy access to a steady stream of pop culture and general news, teachers have never had more competition for their students’ attention. But instead of helping teachers keep the real world out of the classroom, a few smart startups are building tools that invite the real world in.

NuSkool brings pop culture icons into classroom lessons

“We’re in a student engagement crisis right now. There’s a lot going on and students want to be engaged, they want to learn but they’re having trouble being taught,” said Abran Maldonado, president and co-founder of startup Nuskool.

About 8,000 students drop out of school each day, with 50 percent saying that they’re bored and that the content isn’t relevant to their lives, he added.

NuskoolThrough Nuskool’s site, teachers can find lessons for students in grades 6 through 12 that use references from television, music, video games and other pop culture genres to teach a range of lessons aligned with Common Core State Standards.

English teachers can find journalism lessons based on interviews with Jay-Z or teach persuasive essay writing through the lens of Law & Order and science teachers can help students calculate Hollywood’s carbon footprint or explore the future of 3D printing. The contextual lessons could keep students from tuning out and, ideally, help students bring more awareness and critical thinking to their daily lives.

My one issue with the startup has to do with its business model: the company plans to rely on “branded entertainment,” or digital content built around the brands on its site — an arrangement that might not sit too well with parents worried that marketing is exposing their kids to unhealthy behaviors. Maldonado is aware of the sensitivity and said the company is careful to avoid brands selling caffeinated beverages and other unhealthy foods, for example. But even though more schools see advertising as an answer to slashed budgets, parents and public advocates may not warm to the idea of speeding the commercialization of schools.

Boosting literacy through current events

PenPalNews, another Socratic Labs startup, is bringing the real world into the classroom in a very different way. Led by a former producer for NPR’s “On the Media,” the startup wants to enable kids in different parts of the country, or even different parts of the world, to communicate around current events.

penpalnewsLike a modern-day pen pal program, the startup matches up classrooms for six-week stints. It prompts students to read and answer questions about news events — from the war in Afghanistan to national elections — and then share their thoughts with their pen pals. Since it all takes place through PenPalNews’ site, teachers can read the correspondence and assess students’ literacy and critical thinking skills. And it’s in line with the new Common Core State Standards, which require that by 2014, 70 percent of the texts high school students read come from nonfiction sources.

While several newer ed tech companies tend to focus on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects (and not without good reason) I love that PenPalNews is giving teachers needed support around literacy.

“Teaching kids to read and write is hard,” said Michael Bernstein, the startup’s CEO. “Only a third of 8th graders in the U.S. are at grade level in reading and writing.”

And, as a New York Times article this week pointed out, teachers are finding it more difficult to help struggling students improve in reading than they are in math, partly because reading roadblocks tend to be more complicated to overcome.

Programs like PenPalNews and Nuskool, which target middle schools and high schools, can’t tackle all of the obstacles standing between a student and academic success, many of which start in early childhood. But they’re part of a growing group of startups tying real-world examples to standards-based lessons (Mathalicious is another one worth watching) and I think they’re on the right track.