Monday, July 09, 2007

Betting on Braincake: Interview with Jen Stancil

Last week, Elaine Gurian and I talked about radical change in museums. She said it can happen in one of two ways—either the organization is small enough that no one will notice, or has a director with such strong vision they can charm and fund the pants off of a new idea. Jennifer Stancil, director of the Girls Math and Science Partnership (GMSP), has both. Former museum start-up queen, Jen is taking a small organization whose goal is to promote girls’ involvement in math and science through research and programming to new, innovative, exciting places.

Gender equity work in math and science isn’t exactly woo-worthy. What’s so special about the GMSP? If you search the web for the organization, you won’t get to some academic-looking page in soft blues and statistics. You’ll land on Braincake, their social networking site for girls, parents, and teachers focused on math and science education. Braincake isn’t some fakey attempt to pander to teens. It’s got style, a strong brand, and growing content. It reflects the GMSP’s—and Jen’s—commitment to creating a set of programs by and for its audience: teen girls.

Jen and I sat down to talk about building for teens, working the web, and the role of innovation in museums.

When I left DC, I was packing my stuff and found your Braincake materials. I continue to be impressed by how novel, attractive, and audience-specific Braincake appears.

For me, the look of Braincake, the over-arching brand, is so strong. It was done with about $250,000 of market research about what girls knew, liked about science, how they wanted to be approached about science. MARCUSA did the research and the Heinz endowment and the Alcoa foundation paid for it.

It was not a tough sell. Those are two of our founding partners. And at that time they were doing a public awareness campaign. We know that girls do not engage in science, math, technology, engineering outside of school at all. What do kids do after school? They play sports. The computer games they play and the tv they watch—it’s not focused on science. They’re not watching the Discovery channel 24/7. I knew that coming to the organization and I had this look and the website to work with. Coming in to research that says that—where do you go from there? How dov you reach today’s girl? Because today’s girl was not even the girl they were talking to. Regardless of how much marketing you do, there was a lot of adult configurations in the branding.

With Braincake, the look and the entrance to the website is successful, but what about the guts? The main part about redoing the interior of the “house” (launched Feb this year), is how do you age this appropriately to a 13 or 14 year old? We’d vet designs past kids. And you’d see the morph at 12, 13, 14—the gaps from age to age. When you’re reading Seventeen Magazine, you’re really about 13 years old. So how do you design for that kind of maturity, and for kids who want a MySpace? But we’re a non-profit. We didn’t want to build MySpace. One of the vendors made a proposal to us with the phrase: “It’s MySpace meets NASA." I like that; here’s an educational site that also has social networking at its core. So to get the design and language geared to them is very difficult because most of the stuff for them is ads and magazines.

For lots of people, it's overwhelming to jump in and embrace social networking as a basis for an educational tool. What was your personal journey to get there?

The easy answer is: I’ve got an audience and I need to understand it. But my background is in museum startups. The thing that struck me, building Exploris, I started going into Lowe’s and Home Depot, and darn it if they aren’t doing educational programs! They’re stealing my thing! Museums aren’t competing with other museums; they’re competing with corporate America. You can go to Michael’s and learn to sew, knit, do crafts. Museums don’t have the lock on hands-on informal education experiences.

Museums have a dual challenge now. When I was at Exploris, we had the AAM president come and talk about research done on how people perceive experts, and [he said] museum people are in the top three for respected authorities in fields. We field questions for science fairs and research. We bear a lot of responsibility as museums as experts. But at the same time as I feel the pressure to be an expert, I’m starting to feel pressure to keep my programs edgy—to move the way our culture is moving and the way that corporations—stores—have decided that education is a major part of how they work. So I started thinking in a business sense. That’s what it boils down to.

You're talking about changing the unique value proposition that museums have for modern society.

Exactly. I’m into the whole hedgehog proposition. Where do you hit that centerpiece? What are you best in the world at? We’ve got to be unique, and we’ve got to be great for girls in science. So we’ve got to be figuring out how their concept of changing the world can connect to math and science.

It wasn’t deliberate like we need to start reading Seventeen. We listen to our girls. We have girls saying, have you heard of this? Do you look at this? It turns out there are certain design qualities that girls really like—a cluttery look—like J. K. Rowling’s website. We have a teen team—14 advisors of diverse age and background and race—and they are so funny. One of them said, I hope you never advertise in XX… that’s really beneath you. She understood the cleanness of the brand. Which is very sophisticated for her age.
And yes, the design is cutesy, but it’s also very serious and attracts very intelligent girls.

So when it comes to Web 2.0, it's what they want. For example, podcasts. We selected girls and they go out on the road and we get them with great mentors. And we’re going to equip them with recording software, and they’re going to sit in a $200,000 radio studio to edit it. With counsel. We put them with CIA agents. With robotic engineers. These girls got so much out of the experience about women—about why careers in science are for them.

With Girltalk, doing these podcasts, we want this to be girl-led, we them to be at the center of the project. We based the grant on inquiry, and that’s why we got it from PBS.

The way the Web 2.0 stuff happened with Braincake has been very much about what kind of girl we think today’s girl is. We don’t think science is nerdy. Girls have so many options, and some of them don’t see limitations, and we here girls saying in 5th grade, “oh my friends will fail test deliberately to get boys’ attention.” The psychology of girls in the 5th, 6th, 7th grade is so incredibly complex. We just want to hear from them, to make a place for them. Girls are self-perpetuating, self-driven. So once we get them into something, it will become sustaining. So you have to be thoughtful about your hooks. How do you simulate community on a website? There are ways you can upload your own pictures in your personal viewing of the Braincake page. There are hidden cookies. These things are built this way because girls are built this way.

How is going, audience- and use-wise?

I’m looking at our stats. Prior to changing the site in February, we had about 2100 discrete visits per month. Post-February, we’re up to almost 8000 per month. Web traffic has quadrupled. We had one million hits in 2006, and we have about 5000 registered users—1000 who joined since the overhaul this year. Some people are voyeuristic, some are active. Having the girl blogs and the parent blogs coming out in Feb, it’s a small way to start a community—but when a girl asks a question instead of an adult, it’s more fascinating.

It was difficult to figure out how we maintain security while using 3rd party tools. Everything is vetted before it goes up. It’s a moderated chat. The reason we chose typepad [wordpress] is because we could be notified immediately when we get a comment in, we can monitor in live time.

The content starts with the teen team. Regardless of having this internet portal that was built to be a database and the first thing that people know about the partnership—and that is the way you first find it (GMSP)—we keep many of our programs small and intimate as they build so we can spend time with them one-on-one. The girls on our team are all articulate and engaged and I want them to feel the confidence to do something they might not otherwise have the chance to do. We tell them: here’s a global forum for you. Everyone’s aware when a new girlblog comes out and they support each other. I get forwards daily from teens. That’s what they do—find cool stuff on the internet and send it around. We know we have to build our website partially on word of mouth—it has to come from that legitimately.

Have you gotten any negative feedback about it being too superficial or hyped for a research program?

No. I don’t think it’s a lot of hype. The feedback I get is—what an innovative and unique brand. I think it’s seen as intelligent. We were academically incubated for so long. But even then we were putting out pilots of things. And now, programs are 80% of what we do.

What advice would you give to someone who sees this and wants to do something like it at their own institution?

First of all, [if the interest is in gender and math/science] I’d want people to consider being affiliates. Using this brand to put wrapping paper on their own girl programs and expanding and disseminating our programs.

There’s a lot of money out there to be had around gender—but there’s more money to be had around corporations who are desperate to recruit a new workforce. It’s all workforce development. There’s no trick to it. And all you have to turn to the math media. It was not even a month ago that in Newsweek they did a report on No Child Left Behind and they said that in K-6—the museum market—we are teaching 17 min less math per week and 23 min less of science per week than previously. That’s one period a week we are shortchanging our kids that in math and science. And they’re already behind globally. So who is going to rise to the challenge to get kids engaged in this and sustain their long term interest in these highly lucrative careers? We’re not equipping teachers and kids, we’re not teaching it in a way that’s appealing to them. And we’re not competitive.

And if you think what we're doing is radical and you want to do it, well, we’ve already done it, so figure out how you can connect and build.

It seems like one of the keys is that you are running Braincake more like a tech company than a museum, that you are really able to embrace innovation.

This is about whether you’re nimble or not. My goal is to lead a nimble organization. Not wayward—but we’re able to adapt quickly and that’s built into us. And museum people want to be that way. We have a museum community that’s intelligent and capable and the desire and passion to educate people is there. But the organization around them doesn’t support it.

It's been amazing, working with the language of innovation. If I want to do something like podcasting, it happens. Podcasting for the Science Center? Much slower process. Much more difficult. I just take it for granted that this is the way that I run the business. I think that’s what we need—a whole bunch of people that take it for granted that they run their shop as a nimble, edgy, progressive shop. That’s what they say about museums in the 60s and 70s, right? That’s what they were built on, people taking risks and responsibility and just doing it. I think we need more of that.

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Wow, nice site. I'll be recommending Braincake to my 14-year-old, physics-loving kid sister. Thanks, Nina!

Anyone have a link to that Newsweek article with the NCLB stats? I can't find it.

By the way, the "hedgehog" concept Jen references is from Jim Collins's "Good to Great" and "Good to Great for the Social Sector," which are fast becoming must-reads for us non-profiteers. He's really a great thinker and has great thinkers working for him -- I think everyone can learn something from his empirical management books.