Entrepreneurship is Elementary: How a Project-Based Curriculum Catalyzed a Community

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The young entrepreneur stood on stage, voice wavering as she pitched her product to the room of peers, mentors and invited guests. “My product is called the Retractable Heel. It’s a comfortable flat for the daytime and has a fancy heel for when you go out at night.” The audience oohed. A woman in the back of the room pointed at her uncomfortable shoes and said, “I would use that!”

We could have been on Shark Tank or at an incubator demo day, but this pitch was a little different. The entrepreneur was in 5th grade and the stage was a classroom at Brooklyn’s P.S. 307.

The students were a part of a brand new program called Big Idea Week. The idea for this program came out of a discussion with the DUMBO BID, a community organization in DUMBO, Brooklyn. DUMBO has had a post-industrial renaissance and tech companies have flocked to the neighborhood for its river views, restored warehouses and coffee roasters. Every morning, thousands of young startup employees surface from the F train station and head down the hill to their offices, a well-heeled, creative horde working at some of the coolest companies in the world.

But few of my fellow commuters have ever turned right and walked just two blocks toward the school, where juice bars and bike share stations yield to run-down bodegas and litter on empty streets. The BID asked if I was interested in designing an educational program that would build a bridge between its thriving business community and the local elementary school. Many of the students at PS 307 live in the projects across the street and, as the principal told us at the outset of the program, some have never left the block. The school was determined to broaden their horizons and I was determined to broaden ours.

Realizing that our little tech community could essentially be STEM Sesame Street, I set out to design a curriculum that would introduce the students to 21st-century careers and skills, from engineering to design to public speaking. It was one part career day, one part entrepreneurship workshop. As an education entrepreneur for years, I knew that the skills we used daily at our startups--critical thinking, creativity, collaboration--also happened to be central tenets of the fledgling Common Core State Standards.

The challenge was simple. Think of a problem in your world and come up with an idea to solve it. The week-long lesson plan was designed to guide students from problem to idea to pitch, a whirlwind introduction to the entrepreneurial process. The idea was to think critically about the world and identify problems, but not to stop there. As James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem said, “the best way to complain is to make things.” We wanted the kids to see every problem as an opportunity.

On day one, designer Tina Roth Eisenberg talked about the inspiration for Tattly, her new line of high-concept temporary tattoos. Her daughter had come home from a birthday party with a gift bag full of temporary tattoos and Tina thought they were boring and ugly. So she started Tattly so her daughter and her friends would have cooler temporary tattoos. Evidently others shared her frustration. A few years later, Tattly is everywhere, from museum gift shops to J.Crew. Industrial designer and tinkerer Marco Perry talked about how he was tired of his cell phone dying when he was out and about. A napkin sketch of a solar cell phone charger led to a deal with AT&T, and now you can find the life-size version of his idea in parks throughout NYC.

Each presenter talked to the students about identifying problems, starting small, iterating, not being afraid to fail and start again--the same ideas and buzzwords you'd read in a popular business book. This was a refreshing change from the high-stakes, all-or-nothing culture students are immersed in throughout much of the school year. Instead of pass/fail, this was fail forward.

Inspired by the founders' success stories, students worked through brainstorming exercises, identifying problems in their community or the world and making sketches and models of their products. Students who talked about their parents’ limited budgets designed two-sided pants--one fancy, one casual--so parents only had to buy one pair at back-to-school time. A group complained about the trash in the streets around the school and came up with an idea for a receptacle that would turn cigarette butts into fuel. And a group of three girls came up with a pillow-blanket combination--aptly named the “PillowKet”--to keep you warm and comfy on long bus rides. The entrepreneurs visited the classrooms as mentors, providing encouragement and a little scientific nudge when an idea lost its grip on physical reality. Teachers stood back and proudly watched as students and business leaders made meaningful connections.

At the end of the week, students pitched their ideas to the entrepreneurs and invited guests. The groups stood proudly at the front of their classrooms, often gravitating toward individual roles in the demos--pitch person, marketer, designer. Classmates, teachers and guests clapped after each presentation. Students beamed as they ran Q&A sessions, juggling questions from engaged classmates like seasoned pros. Confidence reigned.

After the week concluded, the sketches were filed away by teachers or hung on fridges. But from all accounts, the buzz remained. As I returned to the school to debrief with the students, I saw that we had unlocked something that was circulating just below the surface, a sense of wonder and a purpose that could yield great things if tapped into, supported and nurtured. And that wonder existed outside the school walls; the entrepreneurs told me they were inspired, and it became clear that this educational program was a two-way street, an inspiration exchange.

Big Idea Week is now heading into its third year. The program has caught the attention of the federal Magnet School Assistance Program, NY Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, companies like Quirky and General Assembly, as well as many schools throughout the country. What started as a way to strengthen a community is now becoming a model of project-based learning, connecting STEM to real life and teaching very young kids about business, entrepreneurship and new verticals of success. After seeing the impact this program has had in one community, our goal is to take it beyond Brooklyn and develop online resources to help schools all across the country host their own Big Idea Week events.

When you tear down the walls of the traditional classroom and foster meaningful interaction and engagement between distinct parts of a community, you create opportunities for growth, development and innovation that you can’t possibly understand until you try, fail and try again.

Author's Note: Big Idea Week has applied to present at SWSX 2015. Vote for the session here!

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