Auburn senior influencing educators worldwide

Published: March 13, 2015
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Some teenagers bag groceries, flip hamburgers or deliver pizzas. By the time Ben Gustafson graduated from Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, South Carolina, in 2011, he co-owned a company.

Gustafson, now a senior in software engineering and business analytics at Auburn University who grew up yearning to be an astronaut, co-founded Classroom Mosaic – a computer-based classroom/teacher observation system – as part of a project with high school classmate Tyler Smith.

Since its release, more than 500 schools and 25,000 educators worldwide have used Classroom Mosaic, one of 14 startups based at the Auburn Business Incubator.

Instead of taking notes inside a classroom with pen and paper, administrators access Classroom Mosaic's web-based observation checklist on an iPad or mobile device – simplifying the process.

"The administrator is much more actively engaged in the classroom," said Gustafson. "It used to be where they would have to scribble down notes. But it's easier to click a button where they can pay more attention to what's happening.

"It's exciting to think that we can directly impact the teaching of students and how they learn."

But don't just take Gustafson's word for it. Caroline Raville, assistant principal at Auburn High School, says the school continues to set goals and continues to "get better." With Classroom Mosaic, administrators have a better opportunity to make that happen.

"As a (former) teacher, it used to bother me if someone came and observed me but did not provide me with instant feedback," Raville said. "The good thing about this is the minute you submit the observation an email goes to the teacher. They get instant feedback. There's none of that weird 'that person was in my room for 40 minutes and they didn't talk to me.'

"Another thing that's good is the fact that it's real-time data. All of the administrators are on the same account, so not only am I seeing my own data but the data they are gathering is being added to it and we can see each other's. Realistically, on a campus with 120 teachers, it's hard to get your hands around everything that's going on. It's nice that we have a vehicle to put all of our data into. It helps us to get a clearer picture of what's happening."

The business already had a handful of clients – mostly regional to nearby Columbia, South Carolina — before Gustafson began his freshman year at Auburn in 2011. But Gustafson couldn't just operate the business from his dorm room. Enter Doug Warrington, director of business development at Auburn University.

"In the summer of 2012, I saw This Week at AU (weekly university e-newsletter) and Mr. Warrington was just hired and I was like 'I have a business that needs to be developed,'" Gustafson said. "I met with him and learned about the things the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation (ARTF) is doing and the resources that were available."

Classroom Mosaic was given a space at the Auburn Business Incubator – where startups have offices, computers, telephones and professional expertise when needed.

"It's been absolutely phenomenal to be over there," Gustafson said. "Mr. Warrington has made an incredible impact on our company and helped us hire our first employee. He helped us take that next step of maturing as a company. It provides a space for us to go. For me as a student, it was nice to separate company time and student time. When I'm over there, I'm completely focused on that. Working out of a dorm room seems fun, but …"

Gustafson credited his own high school experience with inspiring him to help students of today and tomorrow.

"Our sole desire as a company is to enable every student to have a chance like we had – where they can create a company," he said. "Because we were in computer science and fully engaged in that, it was very easy to take the next step. To be an artist, or to start your own blog, or take what you've learned in high school and do something with it, we feel like we were set up particularly well with the high school we were in. We want that experience for every student. As we hear about things in the educational world that can be improved through technology, it's like a requirement for us to help. We believe in education and that it's a very powerful thing. We have been blessed to have such a good foundation to help other people."

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