Ali Iberraken, exemplifying Franklin’s commitment to providing students with hands-on learning experiences, is a self-proclaimed “experiential learning evangelist.”
With her experience as a teacher in the classroom as well as an entrepreneur, Ms. lberraken is thrilled to join our team. She expands our faculty — who are all dedicated to equipping students with real-word readiness — as Franklin’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence.
Originally from the UK, Ms. Iberraken is currently in her tenth year of teaching physics at an independent school in Brooklyn, as she prepares for the opening of Franklin this fall. In 2018, based on her own experiences, she launched chapperone, an app for teachers designed to make student trips easier and safer.
We sat down with Ms. Iberraken to learn more about her passion for hands-on learning, entrepreneurial pursuit, and journey to Franklin.
Please tell us a bit about your background.
After graduating from the University of Nottingham (UK), I worked for a charity organization in Malawi. I started as a teaching assistant at a rural secondary school, but was soon asked to teach their physics and math classes. It was there that I discovered my love for helping students learn about how the world works. I was in Malawi for almost a year, and upon returning home, I decided to embark on a post-grad course at the University College, London in Physics Education. Newly qualified, I taught physics in London and Kent, while also furthering my studies at UCL, where I earned my Master’s in Education and International Development.
I moved to New York in 2012 and taught at the United Nations International School for a year, followed by the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn for the last nine years. I have been teaching physics, design thinking, and entrepreneurship, in addition to serving as a Dean of Students for four years.
How has your career path led to Franklin?
I have taught physics for many years and noticed that in my advanced physics classes, there were very few female students. The lack of female representation in physics has always been an issue that has interested me; it was while I was looking at different ways to encourage and engage more girls that I discovered design thinking.
I loved how design thinking uses the same lens as physics in terms of understanding how the world works, and goes one step further to include creativity. It’s not just about understanding, it’s also about changing. This new innovative way of engaging students in creative and critical thinking led me to bring design thinking into my physics classes. Ultimately, I started teaching a course specifically centered upon this new approach.
Around this time, I also started my own business, using the principles of design thinking to help me develop the chapperone app. Additionally, I was incorporating technical and business skills, and ended up creating an entrepreneurship class so that I could bring these to my students, too. Seeing my students develop such interesting and creative solutions to real-world problems confirmed to me that this is the direction in which education should be moving toward.
When I discovered that there was a school preparing to open with a mission based on innovation, hands-on learning, and creativity, I immediately knew that I wanted to be involved with Franklin. The fact that I had just recently moved to Jersey City also felt like a sign from the universe!
You were inspired to create Chapperone after a school trip abroad. How did that experience motivate you?
I took 96 sophomore students to Spain for two weeks and as I was sitting on the bus back to school from JFK, I was thinking about how much easier and more streamlined everything could have been. I started looking for an app that would have helped, but soon discovered that there wasn’t anything that specifically targeted the needs of teachers taking students out of the classroom. I started imagining what that could look like and before I knew it, I had sketched out all the different app features to facilitate traveling with groups of students, including enhanced safety features and ease of use; it was at this point that I knew that I had to try and create it.
I drew out some really rudimentary screens, or mockups, of the app. I constantly discussed my project with people and asked for feedback. After hearing how everyone could really imagine using my idea, I realized that I was on to a good thing and pushed forward. I kept drawing out my ideas, making notes, and then learned how to make more sophisticated mockups. Eventually, I got to the point where all that was left to do was to actually create the code. I found freelance coders who took my designs and turned them into a fully functioning product. Seeing schools all over the country use this app now and benefit from my original scribbled ideas motivates me to keep building and improving the product.
Please share your views about the importance of experiential learning.
I have always loved taking my students out of the classroom — whether it’s a trip to a museum, an overnight excursion, or even just a walk around the block, it’s so important to get students out into the real world. It’s there that students connect and apply what they have been learning in the classroom to their own lives. New environments spark curiosity among students, providing different things to interact with, question, and observe. Each student has a totally unique learning experience when they realize that they can now explain what they see. I still remember a trip I had to a science museum as a student. The moment I realized that the principle behind artificial gravity is the same as that which makes a spin dryer work, it blew my mind how I could connect this space travel exhibit with my weekly chores!
As a teacher and CEO, how have you balanced education and entrepreneurship?
Balancing the time demands of teaching and running my own business is something I have always been mindful of — let alone being a mum of two young kids, too! I have learned to be very efficient with my time and conscientious of asking for help. But more than anything, I’ve realized that sometimes you can’t do everything. You have to prioritize and give yourself a break when you need it.
In terms of balancing the cognitive load of these two roles, I’ve actually found that in many ways, they’re very similar and complementary. When I prepare a pitch deck and presentation, I very much draw upon my lesson and curriculum-planning expertise. Whether I’m explaining the applications of Newton’s First Law or a market analysis of ed tech trends, it’s the same: I need to present the information in logical, engaging, and digestible chunks for the listener. I often find myself using the same observation and listening skills with clients who are describing their needs and students who are struggling with a concept. I become a better entrepreneur because I’m a teacher, and I become a better teacher because I’m an entrepreneur.
Why are skills like design thinking and business development important for every student to learn?
Design thinking and entrepreneurship are such important skills, and the more we focus on these areas for development, the more positive change we’ll see in the world. Focusing on problem solving, critical thinking, and innovation allows students to engage in both abstract concepts and real-world applications in very creative ways. One of the most crucial aspects of both design thinking and entrepreneurship is that they encourage students to think outside their own needs. Empathy is essential, and design thinking gives students a very tangible way of understanding users and their needs. We are offering students the opportunity to make actual change, but more importantly, actual change that benefits others. Whatever career path students choose, the ability to listen, learn, and think objectively, is going to benefit not only them but also everyone they engage with.
What are you most excited about for Franklin’s launch this fall?
I'm so excited about coming together under one roof and actually meeting our students! I’m so impressed with the vision of Franklin’s leadership team and how hard they have been working to create a school that offers such a unique and powerful learning experience for students. Interacting with students physically in the classroom is when the magic will truly happen, and I can’t wait to be a part of that.
Before that day comes, I’m so excited that Franklin is already putting student entrepreneurship in the forefront with the launch of the incubator program, Franklin Student Ventures, and the Young Innovators’ Competition. Students in grades 6-11 throughout Jersey City and New York City are invited to present ideas designed to help solve a local community challenge. This kind of programming is what drew me to Franklin — and I’m so excited to see all the creative thinking and submissions to come!
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