ASMSA developing entrepreneurship program under Steve Rice’s guidance

3 weeks ago

Walking quickly down a sidewalk in downtown Little Rock, Steve Rice leads a group of Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts to a tour of a company that recently began as a simple idea that has quickly grown into a viable business.

Just over two years ago, Apptegy, a company that provides school districts around the country a mobile platform to share information easily with students and their family members, started with five employees. Now it has almost 60 employees. The company recently announced a $5 million investment in the business by outside investors. It’s an example of entrepreneurship at its best — start a company that successfully provides a product that meets the needs of businesses and their customers.

Rice moves down the sunlit street still wet with a recent rain. The humidity doesn’t slow him down. As the group of 14 people following him through downtown remarks on the heat of the afternoon, he turns and apologizes. “I’m sorry. I’m just used to walking everywhere,” he says.

Stepping into the first floor of the Simmons National Bank building, he’s greeted by a passing colleague. It’s not the first time during the day he has been greeted warmly by a passerby. Soon after the group arrived at the Little Rock Technology Park that morning to begin the day of tours of Little Rock businesses, a couple of customers at the coffee shop that fills a spot on the Tech Park’s first floor called out to Rice and gave him a hug and a handshake.

Making those connections is a critical aspect of Rice’s new position as an entrepreneurship instructor with ASMSA. Working mainly from an office for ASMSA’s Coding Arkansas’ Future initiative in the Tech Park, Rice is striving to make connections within the startup community as well with established businesses which can later benefit ASMSA students.

He had a head start on that mission before he was hired at ASMSA this summer. Rice previously worked for The Venture Center, a startup incubator that supports high-growth entrepreneurs located in Little Rock. The center encourages a growing startup community within Central Arkansas by offering various levels of support to new businesses. He also started his own small marketing firm.

Most of the visits on this day’s tour were easy to set up because of previous connections. The students’ tour included behind-the-scenes looks at the Tech Park as well as a couple of vital businesses that call downtown Little Rock home. There was also a visit to the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock.

Maintaining those connections and finding ways to engage students with various business entities will be vital to the development of an entrepreneurship program at ASMSA, Rice said.

“I think it’s almost essential (to have a space in the Tech Park),” Rice said. “People are wanting to plug in. People have all these ideas. I look forward to finding ways to leverage that for our students, to give them exposure to those people and to expose them to our students.”

He said some people may have an incorrect vision of ASMSA students when they first hear about the school.

“They are imagining a typical high-schooler, but we don’t have typical high-schoolers,” Rice said. “We need to help them better understand what we’re doing here.

“My business colleagues are always wanting the top tech talent. We have that in development (at ASMSA). Investing in our students is a value add for them in the long run. I believe that if we can prove this out at ASMSA we can do this with any student across Arkansas.”

Rice’s position falls under ASMSA’s Coding Arkansas’ Future initiative. The program started in 2015 as a way to provide computer science instruction for students across Arkansas as well as professional development for a future corps of computer science teachers while using ASMSA’s computer science education experience.

A large number of the businesses associated with the Tech Park and The Venture Center are technology-based. Even if the business isn’t a technology company, they will have needs for employees with tech-based skills. Rice is working with Daniel Moix, director of Coding Arkansas’ Future, to find ways to get ASMSA students involved in the program. Moix also works part-time from the Tech Park office.

An example of that effort recently took place on campus at ASMSA. Rice and Moix led the first ASMSA Weekend Innovation Bootcamp. ASMSA students spent the weekend in an entrepreneurial bootcamp, developing team-building, collaboration and problem-solving skills.

Students formed teams which then worked to create and develop a business idea. Teams followed the steps that a startup founder follows during the process of ideation, or the creative process of developing a business idea. Teams developed a hypothesis and solution to a problem. They then created a viable product based of feedback they received from potential customers. Team members then designed the layout and features of the product or service followed by a public team presentation that highlighted each step of their ideation and development process.

The teams presented their findings to a panel of judges at the end of the three-day session. The “Judge’s Choice” winning team presented a responsive, digital platform called “Exhibitr” that provides a hassle-free way for museum communications staff to update and highlight content on temporary or traveling museum exhibits.
A team was also recognized with the “People’s Choice” award. That team won for their “Heads Up Display GPS,” a platform that would provide drivers a safer alternative to traditional GPS displays. Members of both winning teams will get to take a field trip that is similar to the earlier field trip — a tour of the Tech Park and Coding Arkansas’ Future’s office and meetings with local entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders.

Rice said the success of the first bootcamp will lead to additional events both on the ASMSA campus and through outreach efforts across the state that would involve students from other schools. These kinds of events are good ways to naturally fit entrepreneurial concepts into the Coding Arkansas’ Future program.

“We can overlay some of those entrepreneurial concepts, introduce some of those ideas, into computer science education. It’s a different sandbox but with the same kind of context. I’m interested in exploring how we can push those lines and create something for students who go through a coding block. It will help push those who want to learn to code an app beyond just learning how to code the app,” Rice said.

Rice and Moix are also working on a way to develop a program that would include developing entrepreneurial ideation and coding skills in preparation for the Congressional App Challenge.  The challenge is a congressional initiative that encourages student engagement in coding and computer science through local app challenges hosted by members of Congress.

Rice said Moix sees computer science education as teaching problem-solving. It takes critical thinking to lead to finding a coding solution for a problem or activity. He sees entrepreneurship in much the same way.

Take for example Apptegy, the aforementioned tech company that the first group of students visited this fall. The company grew out of the creator’s desire to have a simple way of staying informed about activities taking place at his nephew’s school. He took that problem and created a process that would allow schools to create a mobile and online presence that was easy to update.

It’s the kind of problem-solving Rice is speaking about. Even if the students never go on to start a company of their own, those skills will be valuable in some other area of their life. It will also give them a basic understanding of how companies are developed.

“I want them to understand how business works. If they understand the components of a business and how they build their value, then that’s where we reach beyond entrepreneurship. It’s really about better problem-solving. It’s not just an entrepreneurship program but becomes more of an intentional and strategic problem-solving program,” he said.

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