Why you should care
Because Williams Learning Solutions could help put America back on the map in STEM education.
In 1998, in a third-grade classroom at Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, California, Michelle Williams watched as her students presented a report on muskrats to Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The students had researched their subject online using seven computers Williams procured for her school through tireless grant writing. Suddenly, it clicked for the young teacher: Technology was the future of learning.
Twenty years later, after stops to obtain her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and a 10-year tenured position at Michigan State University, Williams, 49, has returned to her education roots. In 2015, she founded Williams Learning Solutions to provide children — some of whom might not have considered college — the tools they need to pursue high-paying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.
The seeds of Williams’ company were planted early. Raised by her grandparents in tiny Centerville, Texas, Williams moved to Dallas to attend a business magnet high school. Jeans and sports were not allowed; the focus was on academics and real-world experience. “If you graduated, you could do anything in life,” Williams says. Many of her classmates came from the South Dallas area, where only 16.5 percent of residents attain a postsecondary degree.
Williams’ 10th-grade science teacher, Bonnie Clack, knew her pupil was gifted. “I noticed right off that she was a serious student, no-nonsense, eager to learn as much as she could,” Clack says. “It was like she was on a mission and didn’t have any time to play.”
The next stop on that mission? The University of Texas at Austin. “I started out as a computer science major, and then I discovered I’m a people person,” Williams says. “All that programming!” The shift led her to a marketing job at Eastman Kodak, but education was always in the back of her mind as she mentored students in the community. Williams’ husband, Jeff, suggested she try substitute teaching, and it took.
The best teachers in the world can only do so much when they’re given 25 to 30 pupils.
The Williamses moved to Santa Clara, California, where she pursued teaching full time. There, it was the Smart School PC Day grant she wrote, backed by emerging tech powers Logitech, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Intel, that wired her classroom. “I had kids who didn’t want to leave,” Williams says.
Williams knew she was helping students chart a new course for their lives, but she wanted to expand the scale of her impact beyond a classroom of 27 children. So she pursued her Ph.D at Berkeley “with a vision for transforming education with technology,” says her adviser, Marcia Linn, a professor of development and cognition. Williams shaped her research program by networking with leaders in Silicon Valley and with classroom teachers. It was while working on her dissertation, understanding how kids learn and designing content for a web-based platform, that the company she would eventually found began to take shape.
As a professor at Michigan State, Williams focused on teaching teachers, as research shows elementary teachers aren’t always confident in their science and math instruction. “As a teacher, it’s easiest to learn by seeing and doing,” says Melissa Shockley, Williams’ former undergraduate student teacher who now teaches first grade in Charleston, South Carolina. “She modeled for us how you teach science to little ones, how you make it fun and hands-on.”
At Michigan State, Williams picked up major grants in science education and prestigious honors — including a National Science Foundation CAREER award — and had her daughter, Jada, while putting off her business idea. She watched with dismay as American students continued to fall further behind the rest of the world in STEM education. In 2014, she finally made the leap — leaving a tenured position and $375,000 in remaining grant money on the table to focus on her company. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “Our kids are falling behind in science.”
Williams relocated her family to the Bay Area and set out to build her team. With the area’s tech giants doling out large salaries, it was hard to convince engineers to work for equity, so “I ended up putting my own skin in the game,” Williams says — $160,000, to be precise. And she worked connections. The nephew of a former teaching colleague came on as her data scientist. Linn, her Ph.D. adviser at Berkeley, agreed to be an adviser. John Butler, one of Williams’ professors at UT Austin, was one of her angel investors.
How is Williams Learning Solutions disrupting education? The company, which developed a proprietary algorithm, takes a conceptual, holistic approach to learning. “The best teachers in the world can only do so much when they’re given 25 to 30 pupils,” Williams explains. She and her team tailor the technology to the individual student, and the algorithm changes along the way — eschewing common techniques like problem sets and PDFs.
The first product on the software as a service-based global learning platform, which is compatible with iOS and Android devices and browser-based software, focuses on ecology. Students must make choices to restore stability in a monarch butterfly habitat, adjusting the numbers of monarchs, field mice and owls. The product — called Eco Challenge — tracks each child’s learning and redirects the student immediately if he or she is failing rather than waiting until the end of the project. The first app release, set for early November, is designed for children from kindergarten through second grade in public, private, charter and home schools, and will be sold at a flat rate, likely $1 to $2 per pupil. After that, the company hopes to move to a subscription model as it builds out the world, aiming to cover K-12 in life, physical and earth sciences.
The business model faces considerable challenges. Consumers don’t want to pay a lot for supplemental learning. And educators and parents are wary of children having too much screen time. To assuage such fears, lessons can be broken up into smaller parts, and student and educator can choose to take more time. The product will also offer core content, to help stand out in a STEM education space that includes competitors DreamBox Learning and Khan Academy.
So far, Williams is thrilled by the response from educators and testers — including 9-year-old Jada, who loves science. Amy Popek, a former undergraduate student of Williams’, is now one of the company’s teaching partners, testing the product with her students at Greyhound Intermediate School in Eaton Rapids, Michigan. “The observations students made while interacting with the app showed they were using their scientific thinking to solve the problem at hand,” Popek says. “Many students asked to play during free choice time!”
And with each tap, America’s science deficit shrinks.