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Empowering Students Through Entrepreneurship & Design Thinking, Part 2

Kim Saxe

Director, Innovation Labs, The Nueva School
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Students brainstorming ideas for an improved system to reduce patient errors with prescription medications. Later, they built a working prototype to fully test and show their concept.

This is the second of two parts about The Nueva School's Intro to Entrepreneurship elective course for 7th and 8th graders. In the previous post, students learned to think like knowledge workers, focus on social good, and identify unaddressed needs. In this post, we see those pieces coming together.

Next: Synthesis and Envisioning Solutions

Needs Statements

A needs statement combines users, needs and insights. In our Entrepreneurship courses, we call them Pains (from the book Gear Up by Stanford professor Tom Kosnik), since the need has to transcend to a pain for most people to expend effort/money to fix it.

Injured athletes need ice and knee braces. One student's insight was to combine those two needs into one easier-to-use and more effective product.

Visual Thinking

Entrepreneurship is about translating vision to reality. Expressing ideas rapidly in pictures and symbols helps with this process. Communication of the final ideas improves as well.

All student teams found the visual representation "webbing" of the business model helpful. Identifying the transfer of value and benefits at that high, abstract level helped them understand the interactions better and identify missing links.

Turn Off the Judging Mind

When generating solutions, students are encouraged to accept and record all ideas. Later, they can turn their "judging mind" back on to decide on the best course of action.

Hold Ideas Loosely

Work hard but hold the ideas loosely, much like a martial artist in a neutral stance, ready to move in any direction. We work to make the ideas the best possible, but we also realize we may well be tossing them away or modifying them significantly as we progress.

Pivoting is a commonly used term now in entrepreneurship. Sometimes students have to shift their needs statement as they learn more or if they find a product is already offered to meet the need. Sometimes they shift the underlying technologies to create more delight and/or to reduce product costs.

Capture Everything

Students are encouraged to record and capture all of their interviews, their doodles as they begin to brainstorm, and the feedback on their ideas. Often, by looking back over something, we will identify a key idea or insight.

A visiting venture capitalist-engineer circulates through teams -- encouraging, questioning and consulting on technical issues. In this picture, she discusses omnidirectional treadmill business opportunities with one student while encouraging the seated group to do some "back of the envelope" calculations on their universal phone battery concept.

Photo credit: Kim Saxe

Iteration: A Miracle

As our work with entrepreneurship and design thinking has progressed, the importance of going through many rounds of the cycle of testing, seeking feedback and incorporating feedback leads to products and business models that are coherent and more viable.

Inventing Ways to Test Assumptions

Students are asked to invent ways to test key assumptions. Some make false websites to see if people will donate to their cause or place an order. Some do surveys.

A team that invented a new type of showerhead that also dispensed soap, shampoo and conditioner iterated their phone calls to nursing homes and high end hotels. They talked with the folks who purchased the showerheads to learn if there was interest and how much they would be willing to pay. They were highly successful in determining realistic pricing.

Get Out of the Building!

The venture capitalists and social entrepreneurs commented with great excitement when student teams shared information they got directly from users or when they presented tests they had done with users. Successful entrepreneurs don't just dream up their companies; they actively seek feedback to improve their ideas and products.

Another student interviewed trumpet teachers and students to figure out their interest in custom mouthpieces. This dramatically reduced the guesswork in his business model.

Relentless Persistence

It takes great energy and extreme tenacity to be an entrepreneur. Birthing a new venture takes much time and effort, as well as the ability to be very resilient when the team uncovers aspects of the plan that are less practical than first imagined.

Inspired to make a green, low-cost, expandable wheelchair for children with cerebral palsy, one young lady went to considerable effort to research available wheelchairs, research the number of children with cerebral palsy, and even create a small prototype of how the seat could be unrolled to become wider as the child got older. Developing an effective pitch, creating accurate financials, and writing an engaging business plan all took resilience and grit.

Watch our middle school students in action as they present their business models, products and financials to a panel of social entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Photo credit: Kim Saxe

Engaged Students, Important Learning

Entrepreneurship, for profit and for good, has been a wonderful surprise. Of all the courses we've run in the Innovation Lab over the past six years, entrepreneurship led to the deepest understanding and mastery of the design thinking process. Engaged students identifying real needs, inventing solutions and creating business models -- it doesn't get any better! Many students from both years of the program commented that they now knew how to go from nothing to something! Some of them have gone through rapid, personal transformations that were dramatic and permanent. Entrepreneurship and design thinking make our students more effective. I encourage you to teach entrepreneurship in your schools and witness the magic!

Design Thinking @ the Nueva School

Image credit: The Nueva School

Learning Outcomes for Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship

Design Thinking Process
  • Knows how to take ideas to reality
  • Resilient problem solvers
  • Effectiveness
  • Confidence
Needs Identification
  • Understands the importance of identifying the underlying need
Advanced Interviewing Techniques
  • Empathy and caring
  • Bias to action
  • Probes beneath the surface; deep dive
Targeted Research
  • Curiosity
  • Persistence
Idea Generation
  • Visionary thinking
  • Knows methods that work best for them to ideate
Visual Representation of Ideas, Relationships
  • Ability to convey one's unfinished ideation (in-process)
  • Continuously improves skill set of tools, materials and techniques to best bring their ideas into the world
  • Open to new advances
Testing & Improvement Cycle
  • Creates hypotheses in all areas and tests them
  • Analyzes and acts on the results
Creates and effectively presents informally and formally; invents engaging materials/presentations
  • An idea or venture will be judged on our ability to convey it effectively.
Understands business financial vocabulary and can build a computer spreadsheet that allows for testing of different financial models
  • Views financials as a key aspect of the viability of bringing ideas into the world
  • Iterates
  • Systems thinking


  • Entrepreneurship:
    • Gear Up by Tom Kosnik
    • How to Build a Startup: Steve Blank's online course in entrepreneurship at Udacity
  • Models: Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder
  • Presentations: Resonate by Nancy Duarte
  • Visual Thinking: David Sibbet and Rachel Smith of The Grove Consultants International
  • Events:
    • The Nueva Design Thinking Institute for administrators and teachers is taught annually in June at The Nueva School.
    • The Innovative Learning Conference is an event on October 18, 2013 (October 17 for teachers is sold out) featuring over 60 nationally known education speakers. The strand on Design Thinking 102 includes David Kelley, Dale Dougherty, Paulo Blikstein, Kim Saxe, Tina Seelig and others. Funding is available for 100 public school teachers -- register early!
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