Design Thinking Helps these Youth Entrepreneurs Thrive

The elementary students in rural Frisco, Colorado thought running a school store sounded great. It didn’t matter to them that their teachers planned to use design thinking to help the students be creative and innovative, teach them 21st century skills in authentic situations, and empower students by giving them ownership of their learning.

Peder Hansen, STEM Coordinator and Library & Media Specialist at Frisco Elementary, helped students create a store. Using the design thinking process—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—students learned concepts like product cost and sales price. This turned out to be a good motivator for a student who was struggling in math. “He was so jazzed about doing math in this context, we decided to offer it to more kids,” said Peder.

That’s how the Entrepreneur Club was born with co-founder Brett Meyers, 5th grade teacher.  Fifty students applied for sixteen spots. It’s a deliberate mix of 3rd-5th grade boys and girls who aren’t getting high test scores or grades but have alternative school talents, or soft skills, such as abilities to be flexible, think critically, and collaborate. Selected students also have a growth mindset—various approaches to learning and they understand that effort makes them stronger.

Entrepreneur Club members learn advanced subjects such as marketing, net and gross, and supply and demand. They practice “instant pitches” where they pick a product name out of a hat and discuss its merits on the fly. The pitches are essentially mini-persuasive writings.

It wasn’t all fun for the students at first. They wanted to sell products right away, but Peder and Brett had them conduct empathy interviews first. This didn’t come comfortably to many students—sitting face-to-face with another student, asking questions, and writing the answers—but the lesson was invaluable.

The students created The Wall of Woe, posting the problems they heard, including: “I’m bored in school,” “I hate math,” “I have dog poop at my house,” and “I don’t have time to do my homework.” They determined which existing products might solve the problems their peers were experiencing. Students wanted to sell gum, and Peder posed the problem that the teachers wouldn’t like gum chewing during class. “We never tell them, ‘you can’t do that,’” said Peder. The students created a contract that went with the gum promising they wouldn’t chew it during school.

Other students wanted to sell fidget cubes to help reduce stress and improve focus. They ordered four cubes, which took 2-1/2 weeks to arrive. They sold out within minutes. One student’s immediate reaction was “wow, I need to buy more!”  He evaluated lead-time and how many he should buy on the second order. The other issue was that all four cubes were purchased by one customer. Would the others sell so fast, or sell at all? He went back to the Wall of Woe to redefine and ideate a solution.

The students designed the school store, and then Peder and Brett built a prototype. They’re testing their concept before and after school 2-3 times per week.

Some kids have gone on to create solutions in school. The school janitor was injured and had trouble keeping up with his work. Two of the Entrepreneur Club members started Kid Janitors.  They created a signup sheet and are managing the workers.

The students are on track to earn two digital badges—apprentice and master level. The next big step, the master process, is to use the design thinking process to develop their own products. Back to The Wall of Woe.

The greatest success so far, Peder says, is “the accountability, pride and confidence these kids have in the process. They have buy-in at every level. They see themselves as a team.