Monday, March 3, 2014

Design Students Harness the Internet to Fund Middle School Library

By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- In a lucrative new twist on school funding, middle school students at REALM Charter School have harnessed the riches of the Internet to design and build their own 3,000 book library -- and they have raised over $50,000 in just a week. 

The 108 students, who designed their own X-shaped interlocking shelving modules for the library, are hoping to raise $75,000 using the crowd funding site, 

It doesn't hurt that they have the networking muscle of Project H, an on-site nonprofit that partners with the school to teach design and has 475,000 Twitter followers. At REALM , its program is known as Studio H. 

Once they get to $75,000 in donations, according to school Director Victor Diaz, they are in line for $30,000 more in matching funds from the Quest Foundation, which will buy an additional 3,000 books. 

"We've tapped our inner circle with the donations from the first few days. Now we're hoping to go one step further," Diaz said. "When you team up with a really strong partner like Studio H, it gives you a broader reach." 

Emily Pilloton, left, founder of Project H, and REALM Charter School Director Victor Diaz, show off an X-shaped module students at the school designed and are manufacturing for a new school library. Project H is a non profit based at the school and runs the design program.

Going outside a school budget to fund projects is nothing new. Schools regularly get grants and raise funds through community outreach and parent teacher associations. But using a crowd funding site such as Kickstarter, which has worldwide reach, is something relatively new. And the donations that come from it are not just charity, Diaz said. A pledge of $149, for example, will get you one of the X-shaped modules that can be used as a free-standing magazine or book rack. 

"We think it's definitely fair to say it's a trend," said Kickstarter spokesman Michael MacGregor. "We've seen all kinds of student projects, from putting satellites into space to writing their own books." 

But none of the projects MacGregor listed in an email come close to the magnitude raised by REALM students in just a few days. The largest school project listed is $10,000. 

That may be due in part to REALM 's partnership with Project H, whose founder, Emily Pilloton, is the one with the hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. A 14-minute Pilloton presentation at one of the TED ideas conferences in 2010 about her work at a school district in rural North Carolina, for example, has been viewed 685,000 times. 

"When you team up with a really strong partner like Project H, it gives you a broader reach," Diaz said. "It connects more people to schools and that's the great thing about it." 

In the classroom at REALM , the focus is not really on how much money the kids are raising but what they are making. Pilloton's program started in the charter's high school, where they have designed and built classrooms out of shipping containers and designed skateboards. 

This year they decided to take the program to the middle school and design and build a library in an empty classroom. 

"The common thread here is we are not just consumers of things, we can make things ourselves and we can fund them ourselves," Pilloton said. "It's the idea of ownership. For kids who are so screen driven, you see a huge fire in their eyes when you hand them a chop saw." 

After they built a prototype X-shaped module that can be duplicated and fit together in endless arrangements for the 3,000 books they hope to buy this summer, they wrangled Carl Bass, chief executive officer of Autodesk, which makes design and engineering software, to manufacture the pieces free of charge at his West Berkeley shop. 

"He's volunteered all his time and staff time, well over 100 hours," Diaz said. 

Once the pieces are all manufactured and ready to go, students will start assembling them in their library in April or May, Diaz said. 

He said donations and matching funds will pay for $20,000 in materials, $60,000 for books, $15,000 for technology and $10,000 for software. 

Diaz, whose middle and high schools have a budget of about $8 million, said he could have built the library using his budget, "but then I couldn't have done something else." 

"Public school funding doesn't come close to funding projects like these," he said. "A chop saw is not cheap." 

Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at

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