What If Students Were Encouraged To Be Innovation Junkies?

BIF 2015 speaker booksHave you ever thought about what we expect of students, and what they expect of themselves? If so, imagine if the expectation for students was to be innovators, instead of simply learners and knowledge sponges. What if we encouraged students to change the ratio, flip the equation, disrupt the system? What if the basis of our education system was built on the concept of enacting innovation?

Opening this year’s Business Innovation Factory Summit (also known as BIF2015), BIF founder Saul Kaplan declared the event the gathering of the innovation junkies, saying that in the past “the stories have been incredible, as have the 500 plus innovation junkies who are here.” Now there’s an intriguing phrase. Innovation junkies.

Over the two days I spent at BIF2015, I embraced the innovation junky title. Storytellers — as BIF calls its presenters — spoke about topics that ranged from brain surgery, expressive art, social identity, and education to blockchains, opera, game development, and prison. The premise of the summit is that “a good story can change the world,” that by listening and telling good stories, we soak in the inspiration and impetus to go out there and make a difference.

Students As Innovation Junkies

At Noble Impact, like at BIF, we believe in storytelling and impact. During the first weeks of class across all Noble courses, scholars are challenged to share their personal stories with their classmates — to define who they are, what they’ve been through and accomplished, what they care about and why, where they’re heading, and how they’re going to get there. Much like BIF storytellers, they’re asked to leave a piece of themselves on the stage, to be their authentic selves.


Hip-hop artist Big Piph speaks with Noble Impact scholar Bradley Poindexter about the apprenticeship they’re collaborating on through Noble Impact.

Noble courses, too, push students to work on projects within and outside the classroom that are aligned with their interests and aspirations. Scholars are asked to seek out opportunities to provide value in their communities, while also learning important skills that will push them towards their goals. Scholars grow throughout the course to consistently ask how they can help solve the problems they see around them.

Noble Scholar and spoken word poet Bradley Poindexter, a senior at eStem High School, for example, is apprenticing with hip-hop artist and philanthropist Big Piph, focused on show production. The two are working on Big Piph’s next show, and I’ve heard it through the grapevine that Poindexter may either have some stage time or be producing a show of his own. Either way, it’s exciting to see Poindexter working on a project in line with his passion for poetry, spoken word, and music, alongside an incredible mentor. This is what education should look like everywhere.

Going back to the thought of “innovation junkies,” it occurs to me that that’s what we’re doing at Noble Impact: Getting students hooked on innovative thinking. And on collaboration.

BIF Food For Thought

Tampon Run Game

Teen coder Sophie Houser introduced her mobile game, Tampon Run, at BIF, showcasing the introduction that aims to break the taboo of talking about menstruation.

If any BIF talk embodied this idea of encouraging today’s students to think disruptively, it was that of Sophie Houser, a student herself, and one of two teenage coders behind the eight-bit, side-scrolling web and mobile game Tampon Run, which was created to combat the taboo of talking about menstruation. Houser and fellow developer Andrea Gonzalez met at Girls Who Code, an organization that aims to help close the gender gap in tech by teaching girls how to code.

Houser and Gonzalez are certainly innovators. Just take a look at their introduction to the game (which gamers see before getting started):

“Most women menstruate for a large portion of their lives. It is, by all means, normal. Yet most people, women and men alike, feel uncomfortable talking about anything having to do with menstruation. The taboo that surrounds it teaches women that a normal and natural bodily function is embarrassing and crude.

“Tampon Run is a way of discussing the taboo in an accessible way. Instead of holding a gun, the runner holds tampons, and instead of shooting enemies, the runner throws tampons at them.

“Although the concept of the video game may be strange, it’s stranger that our society has accepted and normalized guns and violence through video games, yet we still find tampons and menstruation unspeakable. Hopefully one day menstruation will be as normal, in not more so, than guns and violence have become in our society; Normal enough to place in a video game without a second thought.”

Articulate and analytical, these first few screens that gamers see (screenshots above) address a very real problem: That women are shamed and ostracized for having a period, a natural body function. In fact, during her BIF talk, Houser spoke to a number of stats about women around the world and how the stigma behind menstruation holds them back from attending school or interacting with others during their period. She shared stories of students in her own school being traumatized from white-jean-leaks and that first-period-menstruation-product-purchase.

Houser recalls that she even felt embarrassed suggesting a tampon game for the duo’s Girls Who Code project. The program’s all-girls environment, though, provided a bit of support for her to finally speak up. When the two approached their instructor, the idea needed to be vetted through the “higher ups” just to make sure it was an acceptable topic. Though it was deemed controversial early on, the organization encouraged the girls to continue forward.

At this point in Houser’s story, I let out a big sigh — I was so happy the students were encouraged to create, rather than reprimanded for their concept. Speaking of encouraging versus reprimanding, another story was abuzz at BIF: The recent incident where 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed built a clock to impress his teacher and was instead arrested, because the teacher confused it for a bomb. Inventiveness deserves encouragement, not arrest. I was pleased when leaders, such as Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, stood up to invite the young inventor to the White House and Facebook headquarters. I am proud, too, that my alma mater, MIT, which Mohamed identifies as his top school of choice, invited him for a visit, as well.

Religious, ethnic, gender, and other types of profiling should not be commonplace in society. What message are we sending to young girl in this nation? To young Muslims in America?

The Next Generation Of Innovation Junkies

The message we’re sending to our youth should be that everybody is capable of contributing to their society, of learning something incredible, of being inventive, of innovating.

BIF storytelling Jaime Casap, who serves as chief education evangelist at Google, shared during his talk that he believes all people are problem-solvers. When people challenge him on that notion, he points to his one-year-old as an example, saying that she problem-solves all day. Giving a prime example, he added that she recently solved the problem of: “How can I get the contents of this Sharpie onto that wall?”

Randoms Collisions at BIF Conference

BIF2015 attendees take part in the tradition of having “random collisions with unusual suspects,” or #RCUS, during break times.

As adults, we’re given the freedom to travel to distant lands to attend conferences about innovation and changing the world — Providence, Rhode Island and BIF, you were great this week! But as children, we’re relegated to sitting in a classroom and listening to an adult tell us what we need to know.

What if we challenged students to be the adults we all aspire to be? To take on titles like “innovation junky” and make a hobby out of seeking out information about and stories of how people are improving the world? To insert themselves into new situations with new people and then attempt to make sense of it all?

I’m just thinking out loud here, but I have a feeling that if students knew how much fun we’re having as professionals, as “innovation junkies,” they’d wanna get to the innovation much sooner than we’re currently enabling! Just a thought to chew on… What do you think?

Thank you BIF2015 for the adventure!

Header image and last image courtesy of Stephanie Alvarez Ewens of BIF

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