Samsung Solve for Tomorrow trains students and teachers to think like entrepreneurs
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Samsung Solve for Tomorrow trains students and teachers to think like entrepreneurs

Students and teachers from around the country gathered at Samsung’s New York offices earlier this month for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow awards program. The event culminated Samsung’s nationwide challenge, in which middle and high school students across the United States compete to use science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills to create solutions for community problems.

The building was buzzing as the student finalists pitched their projects on stage. Students and teachers also participated in workshops about how to turn ideas into real-world business ventures.

The entrepreneurship breakout session focused on introducing students and teachers to the methodology and mindset necessary for nurturing a start-up. Its overarching goal was to help connect classroom theory with practical situations.

And those situations hinged on a stage of entrepreneurship most students and teachers hadn’t yet encountered: taking a strong prototype to market. “We wanted them to feel that pressure of having to make quick decisions,” said Dennis McGrath, one of the program’s instructors.

Getting into the Mindset
The instructors who participated in this year’s Samsung Solve program included McGrath, senior vice president of innovation at Plated, a meal kit company; Tom O’Neil, an information technology instructor at Butler Technology & Career Development School District in Hamilton, Ohio; Aleks Swerdlow, a senior marketing manager at Samsung Next; Scott Armanini, a senior advisor for portfolio growth at Samsung NEXT; and Jen Limotte, a tech and product consultant for both large companies and startups.

They used the Lean Launchpad methodology for teaching entrepreneurship. The methodology relies on framing a startup’s vision around the needs of the customer, rather than focusing on the specific techniques of the startup.

During the sessions, the instructors divided the students and teachers into groups, and within those groups, the instructors further divided the students and teachers into smaller teams. About 70 teachers from Samsung’s Teacher Academy, an incubator for teachers, and 51 students participated.

They delved into a learning process that included sometimes unrealistic timelines and stretch goals. “They had to quickly come up with a concept, identify the problem that they were trying to solve, who the target customer would be, and then their go-to-market, what talent they would need,” McGrath said. “It was really about setting a strategy and a plan — how they would reach their customer, what their service model would be like.”

All of these steps took place in about five-minute rapid-fire rounds, with the instructors offering guidance to help the teams reach the next level, McGrath said. It helped to bust the myth on what innovation and entrepreneurship actually is. It’s not that a bolt of lightning flashes through certain people and they suddenly become innovative, but that there is a process to innovation, and a process to building a startup, he said.

Overcoming Obstacles
Just like in the real world, making quick decisions based on limited information wasn’t always comfortable for some of the teachers, said Limotte, who remarked their biggest complaint was that they wanted more time. “It’s a mind shift, right? It’s even a mind shift for entrepreneurs and companies,” she said. “So I think for teachers, it was a big leap to make in a day.”

Of course, the use of artificial timelines and stretch goals were a strategic part of the learning experience. They were designed to reflect the high-stakes nature of entrepreneurship and the quest for venture capital. “Part of what we wanted to instill in them is that the real world doesn’t go by a curriculum,” said McGrath.

Taking the Methodology Home
Although learning the Lean Launchpad methodology was a first-time experience for most of the teachers, many had already incorporated its vision into their product designs. Indeed, one of the qualities that linked the three national winners of this year’s Solve for Tomorrow Challenge was a focus on customer service, which was born out of the needs of their communities. The winning teams developed safety locks to secure school doors should an intruder or school shooting take place, dynamic signs at bus stops to prevent pedestrian fatalities, and a startup through which visually impaired students could access donated glasses.

As much as 80% of the teachers said they wanted to continue absorbing the methodology and go forward with doing something with their products after the weekend, O’Neil said. “I’ve never seen this happen in any teaching event where almost 100% was totally engaged the entire time,” he added.

The common thread linking the teachers’ experiences throughout the session was a newfound realization, he continued. “The questions other teachers ask me all the time is, ‘How do you do that?’ How do you know that this student or this student company, or this product they came up with, is something that could be a startup company?” said O’Neil. “Now, instead of a question, it becomes a statement: I didn’t know we could actually turn this into a company.”

For the students and teachers, the weekend focused on pitching products and learning the methodology. For the instructors, it was a chance to relearn some things they take for granted and remember the beauty of starting from scratch. Whether you’re a novice or an expert, asking questions and not assuming you know everything is essential when pursuing a new venture, McGrath said.

“When you’re driving innovation, having a roomful of experts sometimes works against you,” he said. “I think that was the biggest eye-opener.”

More information about the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Challenge, including this year’s winners and its mentorship program, is available here.

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