Hi, I'm Chrisman Frank, CEO of Synthesis, an enrichment program based of SpaceX’s internal school for children of employees, ask me anything!

2021-06-30
Hi, I'm Chrisman Frank, CEO of Synthesis, an enrichment program that teaches complex problem-solving and decision-making for kids 7 to 14 through online team games. My cofounder Josh Dahn developed the Synthesis concept while running Ad Astra, a small lab school he built for Elon Musk on the SpaceX campus. Before Synthesis, I was engineer #1 at ClassDojo, a K-12 network that reaches ~30 million teachers, students, and families every month. Ask me anything!

(Note from TLDR) Here is what a Synthesis game looks like:


Links: Website | Twitter

AMA Rules:
  • This AMA will be open for questions until midnight UTC on 2021-06-30.
  • All plain text links will automatically be turned into hyperlinks.
  • Please keep your questions specific and to the point.
  • Be chill, we're here to have fun!

32 Comments

This AMA has concluded.
tldrdan   Jun 29
Hi Chrisman,

Thanks for being here! A couple of questions I had for you:

1) In your long term plan document (link here: https://chrismanfrank.com/plan.html), you mention eventually wanting to get to a point where you can interface with national governments to give children a 21st century education. Can you expand on what this education might look like when it’s full time as opposed to one hour a week? Is there a significant offline component? Do some children finish in 5 years and others finish in 15? What subjects are required and what do electives look like?

2) Synthesis is based on an internal SpaceX program made for the children of rocket scientists. I would imagine the children currently enrolled in Synthesis are significantly above the mean both in terms of intelligence and parental involvement. What challenges and strategies do you have for expanding Synthesis to a more mass audience?

Appreciate all you’re doing at Synthesis, super inspiring to see someone reimagine education from the ground up!

Dan
14♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jun 29
1 — I wrote about what I think the future of education more broadly in this essay: https://chrismanfrank.com/unbundling.html. The big change I see is that all cognitive skill building will move to the internet, because the internet will be a better place to build those skills. We'll have an unbundling in K-12 of daycare and learning.

It's hard to imagine precisely what the "full stack" version of Synthesis looks like. My guide in thinking about this is usually what I want for my own kids. The most complete answer is probably from a Twitter thread I wrote:

"2/ Synthesis 2 hrs/day

a) Games/simulation challenges with other kids for analytical and collaboration skill. Math and coding eventually integrated to simulations.

b) "How It Works" sessions to study complex systems from many angles. Example: How does StarLink work?"

Both a and b are about rejecting the strict subject divisions in traditional education, and opting for a more complex systems approach.

Full thread here: https://twitter.com/chrismanfrank/status/1376707118540091393

2 — The first phase is to create a program that is obviously life changing in a positive way for our students. Then we will figure out how to scale that approach to reach as many kids as possible. The biggest challenge is limiting the need for paid adults, which are the biggest cost center. To do that, we study what the most effective adult facilitators do, and try to build tools to augment or replace some of those functions. It's early days here, unclear how far we can get with this approach.

Great questions!
3♥   
pierreboulanger   Jun 29
Hi Chrisman, thanks a lot for taking the time! We are all grateful for your team's work, congrats already. Note: I'm from Belgium so not aware of US educational system in details. Here are my questions: 1) In your words, what do you think of the current educational system globally (not just in the US). This question is in relation to Ana's tweet (https://twitter.com/anafabrega11/status/1224060414385889280). 2) Do you plan on putting your kids into the regular system or something else? If else, what is your plan for your kids? 3) In relation to Q2, what would you suggest new parents to do in order to set their kids in the best possible learning environment (which we all agree is not the current classic path)? I don't have kids yet, but I'm already looking for the best way to educate them. Synthesis seems like a great option but it's not full-time yet, so what are the next best options that you would suggest? Thanks a lot! Pierre Boulanger
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chrismanfrank ⭐  Jun 29
1 — I think the problem is largely the same worldwide, though there is significant variation in systems. The core issue is the reductionist manufacturing mindset applied to humans. The idea that what is important is that which can be easily measured, and the idea that you can process humans on a kind of educational assembly line. 2 — https://twitter.com/chrismanfrank/status/1376707118540091393. Forest/beach school for socialization, a lot of reading, and complex systems thinking with Synthesis. 3 — Follow our Chief Evangelist Ana Fabrega on Twitter to keep up with what's happening. The "right" approach will be different for every family, and education essentially comes down to values, so you'll have to think it through from first principles starting with your values. Empirically, love and security are the most important things you can give kids. From age 0 to 5 I wouldn't worry about anything else. After that, think about the life you want for them, and ask if their education is preparing them for that.

Having kids is the best thing in the world, good luck :)
5♥   
Luca   Jun 29
Hi Chrisman, thanks for doing this. I also have a couple of questions. 1) Are kids doing programming themselves, or just playing software you create? Is there a way to make it a smooth transitions from "consumer" to "developer"? 2) Will the software be released (soon, later, somehow) in order for people to also contribute and expand it, or is this not part of your business model? Not everybody can afford to pay this price, on the other side you also need to pay the teachers (and yourself). Is there a way to combine both? (Maybe releasing software after a while, or a special license). Did you think about that? 3) From my experience, one of the hardest challenge to solve is timing. On your website, you mention 1-hour weekly - isn't this a bit too few? I have the feeling some people may need more time. So do you divide in collaborative activities (all together) and singular activities (everyone at their own pace and time) or not?

Thanks a lot in advance, and very cool project. Luca
7♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jun 29
1 — Just playing and creating with tools that we make for now. Will definitely have versions that take programming skills to win, but we're a little ways off. I do think it's a smooth transition, but we will see.

2 — I'm not 100% sure where we're going with it. I do know for sure the prices will come down dramatically as we learn how to scale. Have thought about giving the games a time limit in the walled garden of Synthesis, then releasing them open source. I can imagine many different paths. If we come back to first principles, the mission is to accelerate human progress through education. That means figuring out how to get a quality experience to as many kids as possible, which almost certainly means getting the costs and thus price as low as possible.

3 — Yes, it's not enough time. We are working hard on this. The goal would be to get to something your kids can play like Roblox or Minecraft, but that has educational value. We are just getting started, and the two dimensions we are most excited about improving on are a) cost, and b) flexibility, so kids can do as much or as little work on the platform as they like.
5♥   
Jbrockstl   Jun 29
What are musts for engaging virtual learners? Namely, technical or specialized competencies.
6♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jun 29
I don't know if I have any insights that apply outside of Synthesis. To us it was just obvious that as learning shifts online we have the opportunity to make much more dynamic learning environments with software. All the engagement in Synthesis comes by having the games/simulations, and by the social interaction that comes from solving problems with peers.
4♥   
jessiew   Jun 29
What are the most surprising things you've learned since starting Synthesis? What things have you tried that haven't worked, and what things have you tried that have worked better than expected?
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chrismanfrank ⭐  Jun 29
It's surprised me how much people from all over the world have reached out to support and help. Some haters too, but most people who reach out just want to figure out how they can help us get Synthesis everywhere.

We are constantly course correcting, hard to keep track of all the things that haven't worked.

Probably shouldn't be surprising, but the helping kids make friends with the other students has been surprisingly important.
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davehall   Jun 29
How would you design Synthesis for college aged students?
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chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
Funny, we had some of the kids play against graduate engineering students from Berkeley. No changes necessary.

Our big challenge is making it challenging enough for the brightest 12 to 14 year olds.
1♥   
jordan   Jun 29
How did your experience at ClassDojo shape how you think about education and what lessons are you taking from that into running Synthesis?
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chrismanfrank ⭐  Jun 30
At ClassDojo, learned a) do not sell to schools, and b) teachers suffer under the current system as well as students. Most of them got into the profession to connect with and help kids, and the system prevents that.

Biggest useful lesson from ClassDojo is to lead with *engagement*. Once the kids are engaged, they will learn. But without engagement, no learning is possible.
5♥   
Mmalaguti   Jul 1
Hi Chrisman! I am a mother of three girls and have studied across continents in my life. I know the USA public education in Chicago where I live is really lacking. I am frustrated about the lack of innovation and investment into the "future" of our country. What are some things you suggest i could do to help my kids get a great education, that won't break the bank? What could we do to change this system and deliver high quality education across America (starting in our communities and especially in marginalized communities that are systemically discriminated against)? What opportunities are there in globalizing k-12 education by learning from other countries and what they are doing? Ugh i know it's a lot but i am passionate about the subject and would really like this to be better for not only my kids, but all kids.
3♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
If at all possible, I would recommend getting into a mixed age environment for K-8 at least. Age segregation is a terrible idea — kids have no one to look up to and no one to look out for, both critical aspects of development.

We are doing what’s become known as a pod for our kids. It’s not so much focused on learning but getting them time with other kids. For their learning, we are piloting a full stack Synthesis which will require 3-4 hours of pretty intensive study per day. Will be opening that up soon to more families though probably still pretty small scale for this school year.

I don’t have great depth of knowledge of other countries. Finland and Singapore seem to be doing something right. I think for our own kids it’s more helpful to think from first principles. If you’re setting up a national education system, study other countries. But scale changes everything and you probably care more about your own kids than the country’s education system. Start there and be an example to your community. Just one man’s opinion :)
2♥   
oliver   Jun 30
Hi Chrisman, What do you think of the concept of democratic education, be it the Sudbury Valley School founded by Daniel Greenberg in the US or the Democratic School movement in Isreal lead by Yaacov Hecht or less extreme versions of it throughout the world? Are any of their ideas incorporated into your vision? (I am from Germany, where most states suppress alternative ways of education by regulatory requirements)
3♥   
oliver   Jun 30
To clarify: I am equally, but separately, interested in your opinion on the importance of democratic participation of pupils in the schools organization, as well as on the concept of the pupils liberal choice of curriculum.
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chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
Seems good from what I’ve heard. I think treating kids as capable human beings is generally a good idea.

Probably some choice in curriculum is good. But there’s a lot of knowledge to acquire to be an effective and capable adult, and I think we owe it to our kids to try to pass down the best of what works.

We always try to bring kids in, to make them part of the design process, and ask them to help us build better and better versions of Synthesis. We may try to do some of the more radical democratic approaches at some point, but no concrete plans yet just because we have more pressing obstacles.
1♥   
scalfan   Jun 29
What do you look for when hiring instructors?
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chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
Achievement outside the field of education is ideal. Wide breadth of experience. Intelligence, flexibility, and a desire to work with kids (which can be equal parts rewarding and frustrating at times).
1♥   
tldrDLN   Jun 30
Hi Chrisman, What a fantastic program you've put together! As an educator/administrator at an independent K12 school, who is actively working to establish/expand STEAM programs and labs both at my school and several other local schools/afterschool programs, what are your favorite resources for both training convincing administrators to get on board, as well as any teacher training? What are your plans (if any) for making Synthesis, or any pieces of its curricula, available to lease or buy for use at other places? Thanks! -DLN
2♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
Thank you! We are staying away from the system and going direct to parents for now.

Have a vague idea to open source curriculum and games, but nothing concrete yet.
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pjtatlow   Jun 30
Hi Chrisman!

As you build what seems like could be the future of education, have you taken into consideration the most equitable way to reach children of all socioeconomic/ethnic/cultural groups?

I believe technology can help shrink the gap between opportunities available between various groups in society, but I think a lot of education (especially for younger children) hinges around parental involvement which is easier for certain families. How do you get parents involved and what can you do to try and supplement this for children who do not have as much support in the home?
2♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
We are starting with a premium service and reinvesting the cash to get the cost down so more can access. So far price has gone from “be a billionaire with your own rocket company” to $180/month :)

I wish I had the answer for how to get parents more involved. Unlikely tech will solve this, in my opinion.

What can we do is try to make Synthesis as engaging, educational, and affordable as possible. Am hopeful we can help a lot of people, but always important to remember there is no silver bullet.
1♥   
lpop   Jun 30
Do you plan to offer the program in other languages or even better, to offer the possibility to translate it? My kids are speaking Romanian and would love to offer them as soon as possible a taste of this new approach to education.
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chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
We will soon start sessions in languages other than English. Also have some families using Synthesis as a fun way to do English language immersion.
2♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
Thank you for the great questions everyone! I’m on Twitter @chrismanfrank if you want to stay in touch.
1♥   
jerry   Jun 30
You mention in the Pomp podcast that you took a couple rounds of funding with only individual investors instead of VC firms. Do you plan on doing this for later rounds as well? What are the downsides of this approach?
1♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
Not sure what we will do. We were able to raise a bit more on incredible terms after the A round, we are profitable and growing very fast, may not need to raise more.

I haven’t gotten any ringing endorsements of the VC model from my founder network. It’s great if you need the capital, but most founders would avoid it if they could. I think the industry as a whole has done a lot to accelerate human progress, but I’m glad to keep the control of Synthesis so we can do things on our own terms.

VCs offer cash, credibility, and access to networks. I think you can unbundle these things and go with individuals. This has worked out so far, but I could be making a mistake in the long run. Will tell you in 10 years ;)
1♥   
xiii   Jun 29
Dear Mr Frank,

How are you feeling today? And what makes you feel peaceful?

Thanks for your work :) p.s. yes, those are my real questions for you.
1♥   
chrismanfrank ⭐  Jul 2
Feeling great! Just arrived in my Virginia hometown, spent the evening catching lightning bugs (fireflies) with my kids. That made me feel peaceful :)
1♥   

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