A team of four business students from Pellissippi State Community College took home first place in a national entrepreneurship competition last month for a new app that would make tutoring accessible to struggling high school students regardless of their ability to pay.
Catherine Taylor, Joe Bedford, Jameisha Robinson and Vanya Malmstead from Pellissippi State were awarded $1,000 by the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship for their business idea, the East Tennessee Tutor Network.
Meanwhile, a second Pellissippi State team - comprised of Jeannette Green, Angela Heaverlo, David Scott and Tabitha Uremovich - finished in the top 3 of the online competition for their business idea, Kids Tech, which would provide tablets with educational apps free of charge for students in first through third grades.
The teams, all students in Associate Professor Mark Fuentes' Special Topics in Accounting class, were challenged to solve a problem in local education, but with a solution that could be expanded beyond their geographic area.
"Both teams completed business plans and created a brief presentation to pitch their business ideas," Fuentes explained. "One team finished in the top 5 and competed at the conference by setting up an exhibition booth and giving a presentation on stage in front of a panel of judges who were once contestants on the 'Shark Tank' television program.
Taylor and Bedford pitched the East Tennessee Tutor Network at the competition in Newport Beach, California, on Oct. 15.
Bedford explained that the team first researched how many incoming college freshmen in Tennessee have to take remedial math and English courses. They learned that almost half of incoming college freshmen lack sufficient math skills to succeed in college while almost one-third lack sufficient English skills.
"Tutoring seemed like an obvious solution, yet there are many existing tutoring options already that have failed to solve the problem; why?" Bedford said. "We think it's because existing options are too expensive, too difficult to access but, most importantly, fail to meet struggling high school students where they are and where they live, which we know all too well is on their phones and on their devices."
The team decided, "What if we could combine Uber with FaceTime?"
"Shouldn't getting a tutor be as easy as getting a ride with a ride share app?" Taylor asked. "Our app is that easy: tap the app, tap the subject and the learning begins."
Bedford and Taylor then outlined their business plan for the East Tennessee Tutor Network, including how they would fund it and roll it out to East Tennessee high schools, starting with those identified by the Tennessee Board of Education as being in the bottom 5 percent in student success rates.
"We are passionate and excited about our solution, which uses the technology of today to provide an innovative, scalable and, yes, a disruptive solution to this serious problem," Bedford said. "I chuckled when one of our morning presenters asked, 'Are you ready for the Uber of education?' Challenge accepted! It's time to get ready. The future is here."
The team is not sure yet how they will use the $1,000 prize money.
"To actually put the business ideas into action, they would need a significant amount of funding and time; there are also only so many weeks left in the semester," Fuentes said. "We have been building in class on the ideas and business plans they created."
The competition was sponsored by NAACE and the HP Foundation, and students said they learned a lot by participating in it - "leadership, teamwork and nobody can do anything by themselves," Taylor said.
"If we didn't divide up the project like we did, we wouldn't have gotten this far," she noted.
"We started here in the classroom with an idea, and it was incredible to turn it into something feasible and real," Bedford added.
NACCE is a member organization of over 300 community colleges representing nearly 2,000 staff. Presidents, educators, administrators and center directors are focused on igniting entrepreneurship in their community and on their campus. For more information, visit www.nacce.com.
The HP Foundation invests in programs and provides technology solutions that meet learners where they are and take them where they want to go. For more information, visit www8.hp.com/us/en/hp-information/social-innovation/hp-foundation.html.
For more information about Pellissippi State, visit www.pstcc.edu or call 865.694.6400.