Start-Ups

How non-profit kidOYO's innovative approach is turning kids into tech entrepreneurs

For kidOYO, teaching kids tech also means teaching them to take ownership of their interests. Founder Devon Loffretto tells TechRepublic how kidOYO introduces kids to tech and entrepreneurship.

kidoyohero.jpg
Image: Devon Loffretto

Own your own. For Devon Loffretto, founder of entrepreneurial ed-tech non-profit kidOYO, this is a meaningful concept behind an organization that seeks to enable kids to not only learn, but take charge of what they learn and how they learn technology.

Loffretto founded non-profit Noiz Ivy, back in 2001 with the aim of "empower[ing] hands-on maker education and entrepreneurial learning within local communities using technology and peer-to-peer exchange models." Noiz Ivy would go into schools and do programs relating to entrepreneurship, like a class where students had 45 minutes to create a startup and publish the company to the web — the idea being to introduce kids to what the life of an entrepreneur is like with stress and deadlines.

KidOYO is one of several initiatives from Noiz Ivy.

In 2005, Loffretto and his wife Melora, who is involved with creative and development for Noiz Ivy, had a son. This made Loffretto wonder just how young he could teach entrepreneurship to kids.

kidoyo.jpg
Image: Devon Loffretto

At three years old, Loffretto's son was driving a toy, battery-operated Jeep around the the neighborhood, delivering eggs from the family's entrepreneurial effort — a backyard chicken farm.

Not long after, he proposed a company involving flying helicopter robots to his folks.

The flying helicopter robot market wasn't great, but Loffretto took it as a sign that his kid was hooked on the idea of entrepreneurship.

The Loffrettos rode that momentum straight into kindergarten. Devon donated robotics equipment and software, which he said was an interesting experiment of sorts, bringing tech into a very rural school near Charlottesville, Virginia, where 70% of students were on federally subsidized lunches. But little by little, other schools started inviting Loffretto to come in and cover entrepreneurial ed-tech.

Nearly ten years later, kidOYO has grown into a variety of different programs in Virginia, New York, and Long Island, some during the summer, on weekends, in-school, after school, or even in partnership with universities.

For example, this fall, kidOYO has been at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. On Saturdays, they work with two groups of kids, young coders and a more advanced group. The students get to work on entrepreneurial projects they define for themselves. They learn skills like Python, Java, HTML, and CSS and work toward a maker portfolio.

Loffretto cited the fact that MIT is now accepting maker portfolios in admissions as a marker of the future importance of developing skills as well as showcasing them.

"We're using that as the opportunity to convey to students that they define their own projects, they create a bill of materials to source the components of the project, the physical make, and then they have to document the results," he said. That means taking pictures, posting to their websites, and describing both successes and failures.

So far, projects include everything from finger print readers, to modified bicycle helmets for use in laser tag.

Laura Mun is one of the mentors for the Stony Brook program. She's a Syracuse graduate now taking classes at Stony Brook. She's seen the effect of having students define their own projects first hand.

During her first time at kidOYO, most of the kids said they wanted to learn Minecraft. After she did a short lesson on web development, and the kids built their own websites which they could then show to friends, she said web development became a requested topic, and all because of exposure.

"Web development all of a sudden became important for them," she said.

On Sundays, kidOYO has another batch of 30 or so kids on Long Island, and is working with Hofstra University's College of Education. This also provides them the opportunity to work with future educators.

The lack of tech integration in schools isn't necessarily because some administrator is dragging his or her feet. Barriers can include lack of access to tech, and trying to fit technology with classroom requirements. Plus, it's not always easy to find teachers who have the baseline knowledge to, for example, run a server.

kidoyo2.jpg
Image: Devon Loffretto

Ideally, Loffretto sees a partnership emerging between students and teachers. For example, if a teacher integrates something like MinecraftEdu into class, there's a good chance they're going to be working with a classroom of experts.

"You just have to apply educational outcomes to their expertise and you have all the support you need," he said.

In many ways, allowing students to take ownership of their educational experience is how Loffretto has structured parts of kidOYO. He said it's one thing to stand in front of the room and teach a skill, but when the students teach each other and present to each other, it's something entirely different.

This past summer, he challenged camp goers to hack the class server. When one kid finally did, it became a lesson in ethical hacking. At first, the group applauded the student who had gotten in. When they realized he had the power to crash the server and lose their projects, they thought differently. Loffretto initiated the discussion as to whether the student should use his powers for good or bad. He said the room flipped.

"They realized that white hat hacking was what they wanted and they pressured this kid to change his approach," he said.

Another lesson kidOYO has reinforced on the entrepreneurial ed-tech front is balancing responsibilities. He said parents have told him their kids get so engrossed in their projects, they don't want to work on their school work.

"You end up having these interesting conversations with kids about responsibilities and accountability to what you're a part of," he said, "which is something adults deal with, that want to push on their own entrepreneurial ventures while they're working for another company."

kidOYO, aside from receiving the tax exemptions that come with being a 501c3, has limited funding support. They've recently partnered with RedHat, but for the much of the funding comes from parents in the form of tuition. Some classes are paid, other events, like CodeLI, are free and open.

"We're taking a very open approach and trying not to segregate our programming by gender or race or socioeconomics," Loffretto said, "but doing a lot of free and open programs." He provides laptops and really anything that might limit a kid's access. "We try to provide all of that and see if we can't just collide all these various communities together in the learning experience."

Also see:

About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

Editor's Picks