George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Students Aren’t Waiting to Improve Their World

March 24, 2015

My adventures in global education have taken me far and wide in recent months, including opportunities to work with innovative schools in India, Brazil, Europe, and (soon) Australia and Turkey. One trend that stands out across cultures and continents is a desire by students to tackle real-world problems now.

How can teachers support students in their efforts to make a difference? Here are three trends worth watching -- and joining.

Take the Mystery Out of Innovation

Students who have a desire to make a difference in their world may not know how to start putting ideas into action. They may be focusing on a problem that's so big, they can't imagine how to tackle it. Or they may think that innovation is some kind of magic that only the geniuses among us can make happen. We can help students make a meaningful difference by deliberately teaching strategies for problem solving and innovation.

What might this look like?

At the recent Global Social Entrepreneurship Summit at the American School of Bombay in Mumbai, India, more than 70 students from across India, and beyond, came together for a two-day immersion in social problem solving. Before jumping to solutions, they learned how to use the design thinking process to identify right-sized problems. They developed empathy by learning to consider challenges from the perspective of those closest to them.

In one empathy-building experience, students toured Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai. Our guides, a social enterprise called Reality Tours, shared their firsthand knowledge of living and working in this historic community.

Living and Breathing Innovation

As students navigated narrow alleyways, they were surprised to learn about the wide range of industries here, from pottery making to aluminum recycling, generating more than $660 million (U.S. dollars) annually. "There's life here," our guide said at one point, as our group made way for a colorful wedding procession. Reflecting on the tour later, a student said the experience "broke so many of my beliefs and stereotypes."

Back in the workshop setting, students sharpened their problem-solving skills. They narrowed their focus to an issue where they thought they could make a real difference. They brainstormed solutions that would be sustainable and thought critically about where best to focus their energy. One team from a rural region, for example, developed a plan to help farmers retain more of the profits from their hard work by introducing local food processing.

Another team envisioned how they could sustain efforts to improve education in poor communities by selling an "edu-kit" stocked with school supplies, designed by students for students. Yet another team tackled the issue of adolescent health education by creating a cause marketing campaign, complete with t-shirts and a rap to destigmatize the topic of menstruation.

Through rapid prototyping, students refined their ideas and then made their thinking public by presenting potential solutions to an expert panel. For two intense days, students lived and breathed the process of innovation.

Connect Students with Today's Innovators

Students who are tackling wicked challenges benefit from hearing how others have come up with innovative solutions. When entrepreneurs share their stories, students are inspired by hearing their strategies and feeling the passion that keeps them motivated through challenges.

At the event in Mumbai, several social entrepreneurs were on hand as inspiring role models. They not only told their stories, but stuck around to offer feedback and coaching to student teams.

Meanwhile, in Saõ Paulo, Brazil, another group of students gathered recently at Graded American School for a three-day event called Start-Up: Stay-Up. On hand to facilitate this immersive experience was Mark Kennedy Lund, a veteran entrepreneur who mentors social entrepreneur start-ups. He leveraged his network to bring along other big thinkers in this space, such as documentary filmmaker Mara Mourão. She directed Who Cares? -- a compelling film about the work of social entrepreneurs around the globe.

Among the inspired ideas that emerged from Start-Up: Stay-Up: a solar-powered drone to help conservation scientists monitor the Amazon for illegal poaching of wildlife or deforestation; rainwater harvesting and water conservation education for the favelas, or slums, of Saõ Paulo, a mega-city where water shortages are reaching the crisis point; a photography education program to help children from the favelas document their life experiences and tell their stories. Each project idea was fine-tuned with critical feedback -- and sometimes tough love -- from experienced entrepreneurs.

Help Good Ideas Grow

How many of these ideas will turn into real action? It's too soon to tell, but I'll be surprised if we don't see at least some of these projects move forward. By the time they were presenting their proposals to expert panels, many teams were already clear about next steps to take their solutions forward. In some cases, they had identified the help or resources they needed and the allies they were hoping to recruit.

Learning how to get others engaged in your idea is another innovation strategy that we can help students master today. Those communication skills students learn in school have an authentic purpose when they set out to launch an initiative.

Digital storytelling, social media, and public speaking can help them share their passion and enlist others to join them. The same goes for critical thinking. Passion alone isn't enough to make a lasting difference. Innovators also need to be able to make the case, backed by evidence, for why their idea is worth pursuing and how it could lead to lasting change.

How are you helping your students turn world-changing ideas into meaningful action? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Professional Learning
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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