Leading the Way
Bringing in Blockchain
Alumna Sage Franch ’11 remembers when BSS had to cancel the Grade 12 computer science class she had signed up for, because too few students had enrolled. Fast-forward seven years and things have certainly changed. Computer science courses are now the norm and the school has added a class called exploring technologies, as well as technological design and entrepreneurship, into the mix. No wonder so many graduates, (54%), have been inspired to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as well as business/commerce related fields.
Mary Anne Van Acker, BSS Assistant Head, Innovation Development and Technology, and Head of School, Angela Terpstra, are so devoted to encouraging this interest in emerging tech that they implemented the school’s first Hackathon and blockchain training program – a five-day workshop held last March. During this one-of-a-kind experience, 16 students from varying disciplines were introduced to the world of blockchain and learned how it can be used to improve society.
Now Co-founder of Crescendo, a software company that offers AI-powered diversity and inclusion training for tech companies, Ms. Franch was called in to help mentor the students through this experiment. As one of a few powerful women in a male-dominated field, Ms. Franch is passionate about encouraging young women to take up STEM. “I saw the opportunity to bring my technical experience to a group of young women whom I am confident will use that expertise…to change our world in big ways,” she says. “To see BSS taking on virtual reality and blockchain and artificial intelligence; this is next level. People in universities don’t get the opportunities that these girls are getting. It’s amazing.”
So, what is blockchain? Consisting of an unchangeable record that’s shared by a network of computers, blockchain can be used across multiple verticals – from cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, to the pharmaceutical industry, to town planning commissions. The digital histories are stored on a variety of computers, so there isn’t one central version open for a hacker to exploit. Every change affects the network as a whole, not just one central system.
Still unclear? Imagine knitting a scarf. Your friends can take turns adding stitches to the masterpiece, but each one will pull the yarn a little tighter or perhaps make it a bit slack, leaving their proverbial footprint behind. No one stitch will be exactly the same, and it’s difficult to go back and change what’s been done. Each friend maintains her own identical copy of the scarf. If one of the scarves unravels, it can simply be copied from one of the other identical ones – the unique pattern is never lost.
Working with an external company called Blockchain Learning Group (BLG), a training firm that helps educate both students and professionals on this important new technology, Ms. Van Acker, Ms. Terpstra, and a team of teachers and experts (including Ms. Franch and fellow alumnae Jennifer LEE ’01 and Dr. Kelly MILLER ’92) helped orchestrate this wildly successful pilot program. “Once we met with BLG, we understood how exciting this was – a multi-disciplinary approach that fits in really well with our STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] focus,” Ms. Van Acker says. “In our case, we had girls who had strong coding skills, girls who had a business background, and girls with digital media experience who could visualize and conceptualize things. Then we had girls with strong math analytics…so it was a wide variety of students.”
Here’s how it worked: Day one involved hands-on training of blockchain programming and coding using something called the Ethereum platform (an advanced, open-source blockchain not driven by vendors). During day two, the girls (who’d been split into three groups) learned to use cases to help them develop problem statements and build an app to solve their chosen issue. The final three days were comprised entirely of the hackathon. The three groups settled on their problem statements and began to develop their apps. At the end, they presented their projects as pitches to the three BSS alumnae. One group, called Prescripchain, is currently looking to start a business around their app.
Why bring this program to BSS? “Not only did we want our girls to have access and some experience with an emergent tool that’s having a great impact out there…but it was also a leadership opportunity for the students,” Ms. Van Acker says. “There was a lot of collaboration and a lot of individual leadership in different ways, which was very powerful. We also knew that it was going to be a motivating experience because they were going to be involved in real, authentic problem solving.”
Innovative programs like this demonstrate the school’s commitment to push the envelope, offering its students the opportunity to learn novel technologies that will ultimately help them make a difference in society. Ms. Franch is an example of just that. A former Financial Assistance program participant, Ms. Franch credits BSS with giving her the education, drive, and confidence she needed to excel in her career. “Being able to go to BSS changed everything for me,” she says. “It’s where I discovered coding. It’s where I had the ability to learn to public speak and get up in front of a crowd. Everything that I do in my day-to-day career now is tied back to BSS.”
Seven years after graduating, Ms. Franch stepped back through the halls she once knew so well, this time as a mentor. “I know firsthand the impact that this specific education can have on a young woman. It really changed my life,” she says. Thrilled to be able to give back to the school and show her appreciation for the financial assistance she received, Ms. Franch was amazed by the changes that had taken place since she left. “When I was at BSS, we had emerging tech, but our emerging tech was a 3D printer,” she says. “I’m thrilled to see how much of an investment in technology and in STEM education BSS is putting in now.”
Ms. Franch is also grateful for the opportunity to help inspire and encourage young women to take up careers in STEM. “We need more women in the space to understand decentralization…so we can build fair technology that includes everybody, not just the people who are currently building it,” she says. “I want to pour as much back in [to BSS] as I possibly can, so more young women can feel the way I do…to be able to provide any value to these girls. That is a personal goal of mine – to support people who want to make a change in the world. And if I can do that with my technical expertise, even better.”
Will the Hackathon happen again? “Absolutely,” says Ms. Van Acker. In fact, four other independent schools have been inspired to join the Hackathon this fall, giving students the opportunity to work with peers from outside of BSS. In addition, the school wants to expand the program beyond just blockchain, into other disciplines. “[We want] to continue to bring emergent technologies into the curriculum and also co-curricular opportunities so that girls can have that choice and have a voice around using tools like that to make a difference,” Ms. Van Acker explains. “The hope is that we can have our girls leading this for each other in the future.” A BSS girl leading? We wouldn’t expect anything less.
Shandley MCMURRAY ’95 is a freelance writer, editor and children’s book author currently based in Westport, CT.