Sync or Swim Blog Series #6

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education

By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads


For this installment of the Marin Economic Forum’s Sync or Swim, I’m really excited to tell you about a new and innovative Digital and Experiential Education Program that I just found out about called MARINOVATORS, which has been incubating for the past 2 years, pretty much under the large public radar. 🙂

At the recent/inspiring Makerspace and Novato Library Opening, John MacLeod introduced me to Dane Lancaster, who is the Senior Director of Information Technology at the Marin County Office of Education (MCOE) and one of the Co-Creators/Co-Shepherds of MARINOVATORS that is open to ALL of the Marin middle, high school and college students to present and exhibit their collaborative maker-style projects at the Saturday, April 30th Event throughout the campus at the College of Marin.

Designed to build student confidence, competence and to bridge the gaps between Marin schools, college and the real world, this year’s program is being co-produced as a joint initiative by the MCOE and the College of Marin. MARINOVATORS offers a place where Marin County students can showcase their passion, creativity and ingenuity in using STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Digital Design and Math) principals to solve world problems.

Project themes for 2016 include: Solar Power, Smart Cities, Environmental Science, Mobile Apps, Virtual Reality, Coding, Media MAKERS, The INTERNET of Things, Digital Health and Fitness, Hack Your Biology, Robotics, Digital Fashion, Future of Work and The New Industrial Revolution.

“We especially hope that children find MARINOVATORS exciting and fun and ignites their interest in entrepreneurship, invention or pursuing a STEM or STEAM career in the future,” offered Mr. Lancaster.

The birth of MARINOVATORS arose in the Winter of 2014 from conversations by a group of teachers, the Marin County Office of Education and Autodesk about how to introduce the education community to MAKER and hands on STEM. These pioneer teachers were finding that student engagement and learning increased dramatically when classroom activities were more hands-on and focused on design thinking. One strategy to expand awareness of STEM and MAKER suggested by the group was to sponsor an “academic maker faire” in the Spring of 2014.

Last year, the MCOE hosted the first MARINOVATORS and was a huge success with over 1,800 people attending to see, hear, and interact with teachers, students and their amazing creations.

To reserve tickets to the Maker 2016 Showcase and
hear from key innovative Marin stakeholders click here.

Students can apply to exhibit their work here —

Teachers please contact Dane Lancaster by email at

Sync or Swim Blog Series #5

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education

By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads

Interview with Zack Karlsson, CEO & Director, ChangeMyPath, Education Technology

Given that the Digital Education Industry Market Size is approximately worth $51.5 Billion, (according to the Ambient Insight Research) and that “Gamification” processes are effectively being used by the corporate world to train employees at Apple, Oracle, Twitter, Salesforce and other large firms, it seemed worth exploring if any local companies were focused on this nexus.

So, I attended a nearby BASN (Bay Area Startup Network) and US Angel Investors and met David Mandel, a very successful serial entrepreneur and seed investor, who had launched an exciting new education start-up called ChangeMyPath. He introduced to his CEO and fellow Board Member Zack Karlsson, with whom I conducted the below interview.

Michael: What’s your background in the video game business?

Zack: I’ve been in the industry for about 15 years starting out at the bottom as a Game Master for EverQuest and worked my way up to VP at Capcom (market cap $1.2B) and have held senior positions at independent developers like Double Fine and big gaming industry publishers like Namco. By trade, I’m a Business Development guy. I’ve built a career on being a games guy on the business side of things.

Michael: How did Change My Path come about?

Zack: My co-founder, David Mandel, came to me looking for a CEO for a startup he was trying to put together. David is a serial entrepreneur and seed investor but with no experience in games and he wanted to put together a company around a gaming concept that he had developed with his daughter and the person who is now our co-founder and CTO, Stephen Williams. David and I spent a month or so trying to find a way that I was excited about the concept and just couldn’t find it, but through the process, we found a really nice working relationship and thought we could do something cool.

David asked me if I could do anything with my next career, without limitation, what would it be? I had heard a talk, years ago, by Ted Price on the future of games and what the world may look like 10 years from now with games as a focus. Ted was bold — it wasn’t the same old talk about BRIC, digital distribution, free-to-play etc. It was audacious and wonderful and inspired me. I spent the next couple years refining my retirement idea: When I was old and didn’t need money, what would I do with my free time? This was it. I pitched it to David and, somewhat surprisingly, he was convinced. We looped in Stephen as CTO to help us flesh out the tech and parts of the concept, and we were off to the races. It’s an idea that I thought was too big and too crazy for someone else to jump in on, but David saw the dream and then we got Stephen hooked, and we set about making it happen.

Michael: What have the power of smartphones and tablets opened up for you?

Zack: It has given us the ability to deliver digital content to anyone anywhere, but more importantly, it’s given us a broader general market in which to compete. It’s allowed people who never self-identified as gamers and let them participate in entertainment that isn’t strictly one-way. It’s given us a challenge on user interface design — gone are the days when you had a 13 button controller to design around, now you have to think about touch, 3D, motion sensing, Augmented Reality, and a litany of input devices. The most important thing for us is the ubiquity of smartphones. For CMP, we can reach anyone, anywhere, at a time that is convenient for them.

Michael: How are you using gamification with Change My Path?

Zack: Gamification for us is split into two parts. 1) Taking educational content and making it engaging and fun. There is a wealth of experience in this particular endeavor from the old Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego games I used to play as a kid to the content done by Broderbund, The Learning Company, and many others. The question hasn’t yet been answered if this kind of content can be educationally transformative. In other words, does it leave a lasting impact on peoples’ lives? Could it? We think it can. We think that the content has, with no offense intended to others in the space, been designed primarily by educators rather than entertainers.

Everything we know about learning is that it works best when people are engaged and yet, we think it perfectly natural, as adults, to pay tuition to an institution of higher learning and, once the tuition is paid, it becomes our job to learn rather than their job to teach. The engagement factor goes to 0. What happens when content gets subjected to an open market, where people get to make decisions about learning that engages them first? Where the content isn’t simply a lecture and a quiz?

We live in an age with some incredible interactive entertainment but so little of that content has peripheral learning engaged, or value beyond simply being entertaining. There is virtue in pure entertainment, but there is also virtue in using the skills we have learned as an industry to help bring someone job skills or knowledge that will help them better their lives. And 2) It is about taking the process of the consumption of educational content and adding gamification to it.

This is not particularly innovative, but it has, to my knowledge, not been done well before. There are some parts of this that exist in different platforms that are out there, but most of those platforms fall short on understanding the motivation loop that is the foundation and driver of the gaming industry: action, value, outcome. In our example, taking a class is the action, learning something is the value, but where is the outcome? Most of us don’t learn just to learn — it’s a noble pursuit, learning for learning’s sake, but it’s a conceit primarily reserved for the privileged. Most of us take a class so we can learn something so we can get a job, a promotion, or benefit our career. We may be one of the first to take classic gaming compulsion loops and apply it to progression through content that has secondary value.

Michael: Who’s your target audience for this app?

Zack: Anyone who wants to learn a new skill. Our first foray as we build this platform will be focused on nursing. We chose it mainly because we felt that we needed to prove efficacy right away. Nursing has a certification board exam that is required before you become a nurse and we wanted to have a hard metric that we could use to prove that we were helping people build the right knowledge and skills.

After that initial test, we’ll roll it out to other job skills. We are focusing on people that might be looking for a career path that doesn’t require them to run up $60K in debt in order to obtain a degree that doesn’t actually deliver them job skills that help them start a career. Maybe it’s a single mom who wants to get out of food service but can’t leave her day job in order to attend school and doesn’t have the time for night school while she raises her children. Maybe it’s a man stuck in a dead end job that has the motivation but not the means to attend a technical college. Maybe it’s a young man or woman who doesn’t know what they want to do quite yet, but they know that they want to get a job that pays reasonably well and don’t want to rack up 20 years worth of debt in the process.

This is about making education affordable again and attempting to divorce the legitimacy of education from an antiquated brick and mortar building where your money is going into manicured lawns and marble buildings instead of curriculum development and skills training. Further, we can use mobile analytics and data modeling to refine our content on a much more immediate basis instead of whenever the “new” textbook that your Sociology professor wrote gets reprinted at $150 a pop.

Michael: What type of reception have you had from VCs thus far?

Zack: Generally positive. This idea is big and scary and that’s intimidating for some. Some wanted to see more proof that we can do what we say we can do. But we’ve had others that saw the vision and wanted to participate in re-engineering the American Dream and making it accessible again for the middle class. We didn’t need everyone to believe, we just needed the first one. Once that happened, we started the business of making education accessible.

Michael: What are your short-term goals for this app?

Zack: We think that BarBri has a great model. They teach want-to-be lawyers how to pass the bar. We’d like to teach want-to-be nurses to pass the NCLEX. By aiding in the acquisition and retention of crucial information, we’ll improve the quality of health care and the quality of nurses coming into the system.

Michael: Where do you see your company five years from now?

Zack: Ideally, I’d love to see us expand to all sorts of job and skills training, anything from mechanics and plumbers, to hair stylists and paralegals and corporate job training. In particular, I get excited when I think about where technology and this concept enables us to go. Specifically, I love the possibilities of virtual reality and augmented reality.

Since Lawnmower Man and the Star Trek holodeck, I have always thought about where education could really find a home in these kinds of devices and experiences. We also have an opportunity to explore some long tail curricula — nowadays, the interest level has to be sufficient to support a full class at every institution who takes on a particular subject matter, but digitally, we can find critical mass in a distributed fashion so things that couldn’t be taught before, because it wasn’t efficient enough, could be taught now.

The fringes of the applications of this platform are really interesting to me — what if, as a way to directly reduce recidivism in ex-cons returning to society, we gave them a skill, a trade, as a condition of parole. Study after study has shown that a major driving cause of recidivism is the inability to find work upon re-entry. What does it do to poor communities where crime is prevalent to reduce recidivism by 10 or 20%? What does it do to those same communities when you can help educate young women who have, historically speaking, always been the driver behind breaking the cycle of poverty?

Where do I see us? The internet is ubiquitous now, even in developing countries. In my dreams, I see us changing the nature of poor communities across the US and elsewhere in the world, bringing education and job skills to people that need it. Realistically speaking, if we just do it for 1 person at a time, that is progress. I don’t know how many it will take until critical mass helps those communities shift out of direct poverty, but I’ll bet it’s fewer people than have played Candy Crush. I don’t think that’s too crazy of a goal.

Michael: What opportunities do you see new micro-consoles and other technology that’s connecting mobile devices to the big screen TV opening up for apps like this?

Zack: This really isn’t our focus. I think micro-consoles are interesting, but it’s just shifting where the computing power sits. Whether it be in your home or in the cloud, the key to the home and to peoples’ attention is the quality of the content. Most people don’t care deeply about the platform they’re using to access that content, unless it specifically requires an interface or input that isn’t available somewhere else. In our industry, I think we get too caught up in platform rhetoric and lose sight of the fact that content is king.

In the education world, this lesson has been particularly slow to take root. Hopefully, that is not for much longer.

Sync or Swim Blog Series #4

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education
By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads

Something extremely exciting is afoot! It’s not Santa’s reindeer landing on your roof, or a contractor patching up a leak, it’s The Town of Novato, who are raising the bar on Innovation in Educational for all of Marin.

I heard rumor that the Teen-focused Intel Clubhouse and the New Media Learning on 3rd street in San Rafael were moving because the building sold. That seemed tragic to me as this resource had brought amazing experiential and project-based learning in technology, media and crafts to an enormous number of students in Marin, building their competence and confidence. My curiosity overtook me; I needed to know what was up… So….I called John MacLeod who founded and runs the Clubhouse and New Media Learning (NML).

When I caught up with John, he informed me about some really exciting news!

Turns out, that John is forming a MAKERSPACE in Novato at the Hamilton Base, which is 1/3 larger than the NML’s previous location, and wherein they will move into during December.

For this new space, John has been extremely busy forming a ground-breaking set of interdependent partnerships between The Novato School District, Marin County Public Library, the Marin County Office of Education, the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, Maker-Ed, The Buck Institute, and Autodesk, just to start with. Holy Guacamole!

This group is going to call this improved facility the Community Education Center (CEC) and it includes three buildings – the Maker Lab, the Novato Unified School District Media Center and the South Novato Library – all set on beautiful grounds, abundant parking, trees, outdoor hangout areas and much more.

The Open House festivity is scheduled for January 29th and 30th the time is TBD and shall be in all three buildings. Classes will start the 1st week of the New Year, times and dates TBD.

The Makerspace Lab shall be a unique public community MAKER space for students, teachers and families developing projects and lessons to be distributed through Novato schools and within each of the 13 outlets of the Marin County Public Libraries. The new library at the CEC was just built. John envisions expanding into a larger space across the street within two years.

All of the CEC’s Programs are meant to create more opportunities for all young people to develop confidence, creativity, and interest in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) and learning as a whole through making. The activities are meant to encourage community engagement with adults and families in a fun active place for collaborative work. There are seven program areas: The Intel Computer Clubhouse (focused on collaborative media production, social media, technology and content creation and curation), Making in the Classroom (which includes woodworking, metallurgy, sowing, fashion design and more), Adult Education, MCOE Regional Occupation Programs, Independent Study Sessions, Special Education Sessions and Family & Community Events.

For clarity, here’s some background on each of the CEC Groups…

New Media Learning and the Marin County of Education shall provide innovative, collaborative educational programs for the youth in Marin County. New Media Learning programs are based on access, media and technology. They provide engaging learning environments which foster collaboration for playing and creating at the Intel Computer Clubhouse. They’ve also built a very interactive social-networked style environment for youth to share media face to face, through the web, and across devices, through the creation of programming and shows, as well as via their teen publication called “Fastforward.” These students are part of the Young Makers and MAKER.ED Initiative, which has the mission to create more opportunities for all young people to develop leadership, confidence, creativity, and interest in science, technology, engineering, math, art, and learning as a whole through making.

The Intel Clubhouse Network is a project of the Museum of Science, Boston in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, and is excited about operating after-school programs for youth.

The CEC will make use of NML and the Intel Clubhouse’s high quality computers, 3D printers, word working, metallurgy, textiles and sowing and are expanding this year into using laser cutters. This past Bioneers, this group of students produced the videos for the conference and the web sharing their work with 100s of 1000s of viewers.

Making In The Classroom is a collaborative effort among Maker Educators and Teachers in the Novato Unified School District to bring hands on, project-based learning to students and professional development to teachers.

This Making in the Classroom is considered a pilot project and shall present Maker lessons that satisfy California Common Core requirements and Next Generation Science Standards (as they become applicable). Maker lessons emphasize seeking innovative solutions to problems, using materials in unique ways, and preparing children for an ever-changing learning environment. Project times would include school day trips and after-school activities 3:30 – 6 pm, Monday – Friday.

After 6pm and on Weekends, the CEC will provide an Adult Education program to retrain adults to learn the technology and skills needed to be active members in a society based on 21st century skills of communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

The Marin ROP Media Center as part of the MCOE Regional Occupation Program will have classes which allow high school students to earn high school credits, as well as articulating class work for community college credit. The curriculum will follow the STEM-A (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math through Art) as its model. Each class is required to have an industry approved advisory committee for feedback on industry standards and employer expectations. These classes run Monday- Friday afternoons.

John has also developed individualized (Independent Study) for STEAM and MEDIA learning for self-motivated and self-directed students in a project-based learning environment for high school students. These programs are scheduled throughout the week based on the individual students needs.

And on specific weekdays (TBD), the CEC is also offering Special Education STEAM and MEDIA classes for youth with leaning differences.

Finally, the CEC will have fun Family & Community Events on select evenings and weekends.

As the Community Education Center is just forming this truly innovative cross-sector educational startup, please consider contacting John MacLeod at to get involved.

Sync or Swim Blog Series #3

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education
By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads

One of the Bay Area’s fastest Ed-tech startups is the MV (Mill Valley) Code Club (, a social venture founded by programmer and entrepreneur Doug Tarr.

Prior to founding the club, Doug had been up in Seattle working at a successful startup called PayScale (a Human Capital Platform) serving as the VP of Consumer Product and Chief Architect. As the company sold and Doug was transitioning to an Advisory role, he and his wife decided to move back to her home town of Mill Valley.

Cut to October in 2013, his son was 14 and on a local soccer team, and while practice was ending one day, several other parents (whose kids were all passionately interested in coding and MineCraft), encouraged Doug to teach the kids how to code. So, all of a sudden there were 12 kids sitting around his dining room table and he was teaching them to use a simple coding program called Scratch, as well as some Javascript. Eight weeks later, all 12 of those kids wanted to keep going. And, by that time, many other families had heard about his intimate Mill Valley Coding Club and the membership spiked from a dozen kids to 40. At that point, Doug’s wife told him he had to find a new space — LOL!

So, he rented a location in downtown Mill Valley with the intention of helping create a space for tweens and young teens vs high school kids, which would be safe, exciting and social, and would create a fun environment to learn how to code. His vision was to make MV Coders into a digital guild in which high school students could be paid staff and share their skills as journeyman, with the members being the apprentices, and where Doug and other coding professionals from Stanford, Google and other places would serve as the “sort of” masters.

Doug hired the high schoolers with the intention of keeping a balanced 4:1 apprentice to journeyman ratio so that each child could get the attention that they needed to succeed. Doug offered, “So much of our real estate and time is dedicated to sports, but so little is given to technology, and that so many kids love tech, games and robotics. These were the kids that ended to work at home with headphones on, away from their friends. I wanted to create a physical space for those kids who loved coding and tech, and wanted to be around other kids just like themselves, and also to have instructors guiding them shoulder to shoulder vs being the sage on the stage. This type of project-based learning of code enabled it to be driven by the students vs being dictated and broadcast at them from the teacher, which takes the fun out of it.”

Today, MV Code Club has expanded to 300 apprentice members, with 3 locations in Mill Valley, Greenbrae and San Francisco. Members can learn to program, develop a game, make a website, or build a robot. The club houses teach: Scratch for understanding the logic of coding using simple digital blocks; HTML5 and Javascript to learn how to create websites and user interfaces; Arduino to learn how to code to make robots; Java for backend database creation; Unity to make apps which can be sold in the Apple or Google Play Stores; Wix to quickly make websites from templates, and much more.

Doug’s larger plan is to have clubs in each town within Marin, so that members can walk to the local MV Code Club in their community vs having to get in a car. “We drive far too much in California and need to find ways of easing the stress on parents,” Doug stated with a thoughtful smile. The Club allows kids to learn with their friends, side by side, in collaboration, share together to build deeper more developed relationships vs just individually watching a screen and trying to learn on your own. In terms of expansion, the two of us discussed potentially having an office in one of the old 5th grade classrooms at the School Street location in Fairfax, which have 9 schools within walking distance.

MV Code Club also has been producing after-school programs at Mark Day and MPMS(Marin Primary Middle School) private middle schools within Marin. Last year, he also opened a SF location as here was such a demand from many schools for such an after-school coding program and is now working with Berkeley School, Finbar, SF Day and a few others.

The Club also provides members exclusive field trips into the large tech companies of SF such as IGN (San Francisco-based games and entertainment media company); so that members can, first hand, see and learn about the types of jobs and cultures that type of places have, igniting their curiosity and interest in what a future job in the tech industry might look like.

Now, MV Code Club is not a boys-only club. In terms of girls, the staff quickly realized that some girls learned and shared in a different manner than the young lads, so they decided to also offer girls-only sessions at the 3 locations. Girls seeing coding and technology as part of their identity at a young age is really important to help them succeed in our quickly evolving techno-communication world. They hope that they will grow up, and continue to pursue a passion for technology, and serve as role models for younger kid entering the tech field.

Many of the students are creating robots, and apps, which they are selling in the app store, building websites and much more. So, these projects also fuel their entrepreneurship zeal. Indeed, many students’ apps are selling on the Apple and Google App store already and several of the students have formed companies with their parents.

In grammar and middle-school, students learn math, reading and writing but they don’t learn how to code. In the coming year, MV Code Club will also be offering teacher-based professional development services, as many teachers have requested that they provide such.

Currently, MV Code Club is looking for Title local Marin Sponsors to fund membership scholarships for more kids to join and have the opportunity to learn this new language and to create pathways for entrepreneurship.

Sync or Swim Blog Series #2

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations in Education
By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads

On October 18th and 19th, Google will be coming to town with the Ed Tech Team for the Marin County Ed Tech Summit hosted by Mt. Tamalpais High School.

Google is by no means the ONLY player in the space, BUT they are a very important one.

This two day high-intensity program features Google in Education Experts, Innovative Educators, Certified Trainers, practicing administrators, teachers, and solution providers as well as access to world-class education technology leaders.  These groups will share their best practices, success stories, classroom management learnings and experiences using Google Apps.  They will also discuss and demonstrate how these apps and tools can be easily integrated into any school’s learning management system, and show how they can be accessed by any student computer, laptop or mobile device (like an iPad) through Wi-Fi.

Sync or Swim Blog Series #1

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education
By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads
Continuation next month

Back in 2012, California State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson decreed, “Technology is changing nearly every aspect of our lives. But in California-home to Silicon Valley and the world’s leading technology companies-many schools have been all but left out of the technology revolution. If we’re serious about providing our students a world-class education, we need a plan that leaves no school and no child offline.”

It’s taken quite some time, and a lot of friction-filled evolution, for the public school system to integrate technology into the classroom, but the EduTech mandate has finally arrived in Marin and become a reality. Every school in the County either offers Wifi and/or has a computer lab or a cart of tablets. That’s quite remarkable when compared to the fact that only 1/3 of all public schools in California have Wifi.

But, let me put this into more of a visceral parent perspective…

Last year, in September, my wife (a High School English teacher in Marin), and I attended the Sir Francis Drake High School Back to School Night excited to meet our daughter’s new teachers, to sit with fellow parents in her classroom cohorts, and to find out what she was going to learn during the year.

However, to our surprise, the teachers spent over 50% of the evening discussing the new Learning Management System. All teachers and students were to now use this digital engine as their ONLY assignment center, homework delivery mechanism, the place for giving and getting grades, to receive feedback and where ALL projects would be posted.

So, rather than clarifying the new common core curriculum standards, arcs, themes, and experiential projects that the students would be undertaking, the educators explained the user interface windows, the features and functionalities, providing an overview of the various platform modules, and how this digital-locker interfaced with other tools like YouTube, Google Docs, Microsoft Office and much more.

This twist of expectations had caused many parental attendees to glaze over at the projection screen, while others reacted more overtly with fear-based platitudes over this apparent whirlwind shift from the days of pen, paper and the ability to say, “The labradoodle ate my homework.”

And, amongst this growing din, one parent at our table remarked discerningly, “Guess it’s time for them to either Sync or Swim their way to college.”

Over the past year it’s made me think: do students, parents, tutors and teachers have the best practices, training or tools to easily sync with this transition? Marin has quite an amazing talent pool of technologists, programmers and start-up businesses. And, with Dominican University graduating teachers right in our backyard, along with the Marin Educational Office of Technology, it seems there may be some phenomenal resources. But, how many are offering innovative ways to easily plug-in and sync with education? For students after school? For parents to aid? And, why aren’t people in my circles talking about them? Plus, what schools are using which resources and devices, and how are they working and being assessed?

These questions lead me down a discovery pathway to want to identify, conduct interviews with, and write articles about the most revolutionary Marin EduTech companies, non-profits, clubs, associations and participants, as well as the social impact and benefits that they are trying to create for Marin. I look forward to sharing with you what I learn from this exploration across future issues of this MEF Newsletter.


Michael Leifer
Cultural Anthropologist & CEO
guerilla PR, Inc.
mobile: 213.725.3037