U-M undergrads win A2 Awesome grant to teach American history through the stories of inspirational women

This past weekend, the trustees of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to Virginia Lozano, an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, who, along with her twin sister Beatriz, created an education technology company called Leesta in order to “inspire 8-11 year olds by teaching American History through the stories of women.” The grant will allow the startup to complete an animated module about the work of autistic inventor and activist Temple Grandin, bringing them one step closer to their goal of releasing their first series of interactive modules in 2016.

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[above: Beatriz and Virginia Lozano, pictured with representatives of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, after receiving their $1,000 grant.]

The following excerpt comes from a recent interview between Virginia Lozano and A2 Awesome Dean Mark Maynard:

MARK: So, before we talk about Leesta, let’s talk a little about you and Beatriz. Where did you grow up? What were you like a kids? And what made you decide to attend the University of Michigan together?

VIRGINIA: Beatriz and I were born in California, but grew up in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Since childhood we’ve been very close, and have loved collaborating together. We were always curious and enjoyed learning about how things worked. From an early age, art came naturally to us. We also both loved math and science, though. Having similar interests, we were both drawn to Michigan’s engineering program, which is amazing. Our time here at the University, though, has allowed us to find other, and individual, passions, like social justice and storytelling. And, the more time we spent working toward our engineering degrees, the more we realized that we enjoyed figuring out how people work more than we did mechanics.

MARK: Would it be safe to assume that, in your formal education, prior to arriving at the University of Michigan, you probably learned very little about the lives, work and contributions of women… especially women of color… in American history?

VIRGINIA: Absolutely. And that’s one of the main reasons we came up with Leesta. Outside of school, we had strong women as role models. Growing up, we heard stories about the hardships my mom and our grandmothers had overcome as women in Mexico, but we didn’t see that strength reflected in our textbooks, especially when it came to Latinas in America.

MARK: When did the idea for Leesta first occur to you? And what made you decide to invest the considerable time and effort to pursue it?

VIRGINIA: The general idea came from thinking back on our own history education, and trying to name women that we had learned about in school. Beatriz and I could not name one American Latina that we’d learned about. And, after posing similar questions to our friends, who come from different cultural backgrounds, we started hearing the same things from them. Like us, they couldn’t name women in American history that they related to. Then, there was this defining moment when, about two years ago, Beatriz and I came across a beautifully animated ad for Coco Chanel. We thought, “Imagine how engaging traditional education could be if the same multimedia visual tools that companies use to sell their products were used to teach in classrooms.”

MARK: Your plan, as I understand it, is to formally launch Leesta with animated profiles of ten American women. Who are they? And how did you come to choose them?

VIRGINIA: Currently, we’re working on four of the ten profiles. They tell the stories of Bessie Coleman, Dolores Huerta, Temple Grandin, and Grace Lee Boggs. The selection of the other six women is still in the works, but we’re always open to nominations. Our selection process began by gathering nominations from a broad audience, which included teachers, children, and faculty at the University of Michigan. Once we had our list of nominees, our team then began to research these women’s lives. And we also began reaching out to them personally, when possible.

MARK: Can you walk us through one of your first modules… What would a kid encounter, if he or she would open the interactive timeline you’ve created for Dolores Huerta, for instance?

VIRGINIA: Leesta is created to be a supplement to traditional history education, where children will learn about topics they are familiar with, but from new perspectives. In the case Dolores Huerta, children will learn about the Great Depression, but more specifically what that experience was like for a Mexican-American girl growing up during a time of Mexican Repatriation. Each module features an interactive scroll design with an audio narrative, that allows the user to experience the life of the woman from childhood until adulthood. An integrated point-winning system is implemented throughout the site, which allows the users to answer questions to unlock certain activities, like recipes and outfit changes…

For the rest of the interview, which details Leestas plans for the future, and how they intend to use their A2 Awesome grant, click here.

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[above: The Leesta team.]