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Turntables to Teach STEM? ThinkLive! Engages Students with DJ Tech

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross talks to ThinkLive! CEO Charles Spencer at CES 2020. (Credit: Jeff Isaacs/USPTO)

The DJ technology startup ThinkLive! is developing turntable labs to engage students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – working closely with the University of Chicago to create a new curriculum around the platform.

The ThinkLive!Turntable Lab combines DJ equipment and an educational curriculum to expose kids to science, coding, and math concepts – with the goal of closing the STEM skills gap between under-resourced and affluent students, a divide which CEO Charles Spencer said could cost the economy more than $2 trillion dollars in the next decade.

The company, which is an alum of the Polsky Center’s I-Corps program, aims to take on this challenge by connecting “STEM skills with culturally desirable and youth relevant activities” to build understandable and motivating ways to learn, said University of Chicago Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education and Life Course Development, Margaret Beale Spencer, PhD ‘76, who is leading the curriculum development.

“Research suggests a significant contributor to the STEM skills gap between highly vulnerable students and their affluent counterparts is driven by under-acknowledged social, cultural, and human development factors,” she explained. “Countering unproductive behavior and identity narratives via a youth culture linked desirable activity which promotes STEM capacity is socially beneficial.”

Beale Spencer said the ultimate goal is to motivate students to acquire the basic STEM skills required to perform the ThinkLive! lab activities, while encouraging them to pursue other activates that require these skills. The professor also hopes to inspire students “to demand from their schools and from society the right to participate in the STEM skills-based economy that will dominate their economic future,” she said.

The company recently received a National Science Foundation Phase II SBIR grant, which it will use to further technical development of its “SensorTable” – the underlying technology that combines music, programming, and STEM education. The technology captures in real-time the data about how a DJ manipulates music, which Spencer said enables an instant feedback learning environment.

The funds also are supporting UChicago-based curriculum development efforts.

“Evident is that building a turnkey educational experience that requires tight integration between equipment a professional DJ requires to perform and a STEM-enhanced curriculum used by middle school children is a daunting task for a startup company,” said Spencer.

Additionally, ThinkLive! continues to receive support and mentoring through the Polsky Center – and is close to releasing the next generation of its platform with plans to scale.

“A most important lesson from the I-Corps training experience is that even though the projected market opportunity is huge, effectively addressing part of a $2 trillion societal problem, it doesn’t mean that the people who make the decisions to buy your product, in fact, will do so,” Spencer said, noting that the company secured its first pilot and paying customer through the I-Corps customer discovery process.

“Also highly significant have been insights concerning the need to address cost, service, and teacher training in a turnkey manner because that’s what customers want to purchase,” he added.

With this feedback, the company successfully ran a Summer School pilot in Michigan City Area Schools. The after-school program, dubbed Safe Harbor, is currently running and ThinkLive! is working closely with administrators to ensure success, Beale Spencer said.

The company also will closely examine the data being tracked as part of the program and expects to see improved STEM skills from students who complete the ThinkLive! programming.

“We are looking for new partners who are ready to improve STEM skills in general,” said Beale Spencer, “but particularly for under-resourced students attending Title I schools, special needs youngsters who learn differently, arts education focused learners, and youth—overall—wishing broad appreciation of and exposure to diverse artistic and music genres as a part of the learning process.”

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