During the 2016-2017 academic year, a small team of elementary educators at NIST International School explored how the confluence of design thinking, service learning and social entrepreneurship could be combined into a powerful learning experience for students. This piloted initiative was offered as a year long inquiry into How We Organize Ourselves under the central idea: People create systems to address issues and support needs.

Early in the pedagogical design process, teachers sought to align the learning experience in the school’s core values: integrity, caring, community and growth. We wanted students to have the opportunity to embody a spirit of compassion, creatively make with needs in mind, collaboratively enrich the lives of others and effect positive change in the world. The goal was to empower students to become more socially active, environmentally responsible, empathetically innovative and solution-oriented visionaries. We designed the experience to be founded in 21st century skills, the five Essential Elements of the PYP Programme, and were inspired by the work of Tony Wagner (Creating Innovators) and Daniel Pink (Drive). What follows is a story of the year-long learning process.


During the first months of the year, students read news articles about young entrepreneurs and innovators around the world during reader’s workshop. They actively engaged with texts that inspired them to begin envisioning themselves as youth change makers capable of effecting change. At the same time, students were learning about the design thinking process by making and tinkering in our school’s Makerspace. They explored the values inherent in making for others and seeking out needs that address real-world issues.

As students became more familiar with safe and sustainable use of age-appropriate tools, they gained a sense of empowerment by witnessing their ideations transform into tangible designs. They applied flexible and resourceful thinking when confronted with limitations and by the end of the first semester, students had built a foundation of hard skills (cutting, hot-gluing, 3-D printing, hammering, wedging, etc) and soft skills (empathy, collaboration, resilience and creativity). A culture of innovative ideation was created.

As the first semester drew to an end, students were finishing a read aloud of the book entitled, “A Long Walk to Water,” which tells the true story of Salva Dut–a Lost Boy of Sudan who escaped from civil war as a child. As an adult, Salva returns to southern Sudan to start a foundation that digs water wells for local communities. Students were very inspired by Salva’s story to bring water to his homeland and wanted to help. A small group of students began to meet and organize during their lunch period to take action and support Water For South Sudan, Salva’s foundation. “We’re going to start a business and raise money for Salva,” they proudly proclaimed one day. “We’re going to sell lemonade and shaved ice.”


Without teachers even mentioning starting a business or the year-long pilot initiative, students had organically started one on their own. It was now the teachers’ goal to re-channel and shift student energy towards a more skill-based and sustainable learning experience by creating the conditions for service and introducing the concept of social entrepreneurship.

After a three-week break, teachers began the second semester by talking to students about raising the bar for how to help others. They encouraged students to think beyond selling sugar water one day a year and explained that they were going to be challenged to do better. At first, it was difficult to ask students to slow down and reflect rather than run with their reactions. Teachers walked a fine line of building up their enthusiasm to serve while tempering hasty and short-sighted actions. It was a delicate dance of passionate patience with long-term learning in mind.

Luckily for teachers, once students learned about social entrepreneurialism and were inspired by others’ efforts around the world, it did not take long for students to have unrestrainable motivation at the prospects of starting their own businesses. They now were about to become social entrepreneurs.

The class reflected together on optimal numbers for members in a business to achieve peak collaborative efficiency. Students put themselves into nine teams, with group sizes ranging from one to five members. Within ten minutes of the teams forming, the majority of the groups had already decided what products they were going to make. It should come as no surprise that their ideas were limited by what they had seen others do.


Teachers challenged students not to be reactive in their decision-making and run wildly with their first thought for a product. They intentionally created a learning pace that took a more measured and slow exposure to conscious decision-making. They asked questions such as: What problem or need might you address and provide a solution for? What innovations or DIY designs already exist in the world that might inspire you to innovate off of? What social cause are you thinking about supporting? What is the alignment between your potential product, your company’s values and the social cause you wish to support? Teachers expected students to engage in a constant process of reflection, refinement and purposeful intentionality rather than being reactively unaware of the reasoning for their business choices.

Once students became more clear and articulate about their decision-making, they began to design a product prototype using many of the hard skills they had developed in the first semester. They continued to visit the Makerspace and were challenged to think about the impact their product might have on the environment. Teachers asked students to think about how could they design in a sustainable manner while still emphasizing aesthetics. Students then presented their prototype idea to their peers and pitched their product to a small panel of teachers, similar to the TV show Dragon’s Den. The feedback they received helped them clarify their thinking and consider next steps for their business.


Students were then introduced to the social entrepreneurship expectations, which were a set of parameters put in place to reflect an experience as close to real-life as possible. Since all materials have a cost, student social enterprises were responsible for those costs—parents could not buy or gift them anything students needed for their business. With the expectation of financial independence in place, the only alternative for students to start their business was to seek out an investment from someone willing to help them get their social enterprise off the ground. However, to keep in line with working within limitations, there was a financial cap placed on their start-up investment which could not exceed $60 USD. Another agreement was that could not be their homeroom teacher nor a parent of anyone in their business. Students would have to go out and pitch their products to someone they knew might not say ‘yes.’ They were put in a position to ask for a financial investment from someone they were not immediately close to ensure they were accountable. In order for of this to happen, students would need to create a business plan for their investor–which is where the next phase of the student learning experience shifted.

The parameters put in place to require an investor ensured that students earned their business start-up money rather than simply being given it without proving themselves worthy of such entrusted responsibility. In their business plan, students had to think of a catchy business name, design a logo, create a slogan, write a mission statement, explain the problem their product was going to address, highlight the cost and quantity of materials needed to begin producing, identify the social cause they were supporting and consider any potential problems their business might encounter. They also had to calculate how large of a business loan they were going to request from a potential investor and compose an introductory email explaining their business aims.


Nine social enterprises sent out nine emails to members of staff and the parent body and they received nine positive responses in support of their cause. The social entrepreneurs now had the money they needed to start their businesses. With their investments in hand, student teams began to order and buy the materials they needed to turn their visions into reality.

Over the following weeks, resources started filling the classroom and the entrepreneurial teams began to plan out what to do next. Many social enterprises knew the products they wanted to design, but did not have the skills or knowledge for how to do so. Students had to teach themselves the skills they needed to make the products or reach out to experts in the community to coach them. It was an opportunity for students to self-direct their own learning and not be held back by a lack of skills–but rather be empowered to overcome authentic obstacles with the right mindset.

With only two months remaining, the social entrepreneurship teams began to organize into systems that would enhance mass production. Iterations were refined as teams evaluated their products and collected feedback from their peers. Some groups met with secondary design technology teachers to help apply more complex elements to their products, while others stayed in the classroom to assume individual roles within their business organization. Students began to market their product and create advertisements to expose their company to a wider community. Mathematical thinking was deeply embedded in projecting price-points, repaying their investor and estimating potential profit margins. Students set goals for how much they would be satisfied giving to their social cause and worked to find the balance of how much customers would be willing to pay with how many products they were striving to sell. Coupled with profit allocation, potential reinvestment in their business after the school year and the basics of supply and demand, it became an inquiry into introductory economics and financial management. Students learned about efficiency, accountability, time management and collaborative compromise with a deadline fast approaching on the horizon.


Finally, after weeks of students using their 20% time to work towards their entrepreneurial goals and creating a minimum of 20 products to sell at the Maker Faire, students were ready. The learning process that ran as an experiential thread throughout the entire school year had finally come to an end and student energy was at its highest point.

Social entrepreneurship—referred to as ‘socent’ by now–had become students’ favorite part of the day. They had blended the lines between learning and play, with several teams asking daily whether they could come in during their free time to work on their socent project. Students organized playdates and sleepovers on weekends to “work” on their social enterprise. And at the end of the year, when students were asked to have a reflective learning conversation on whatever aspect of their learning they wanted to talk about, almost 90% of them chose to talk about socent. When asked why they chose to reflect on this, nearly all of them started the conversation with, “Because it’s fun.”

During the three days students sold their products at the Maker Faire, almost every single one of their products sold out. Students were able to pay back their investor after the first day, and then devoted the rest of their profits to making the world a better place.



After adding all the money earned from these young social entrepreneurs, students were able to raise over over 68,000 Thai Baht ($2,000 USD), with 75% coming from entrepreneurial efforts and 25% coming from inspired donors.

In the grand scheme of things, their financial contributions might seem small to adults. But to a ten-year old, they are anything but. Students gave a lot more than just a donation to an organization during this learning experience–they gave a part of themselves.

And perhaps for the next generation, the small seeds that were planted today might grow into something big and fruit-bearing tomorrow.


It would not be fair for this story to be only told by the teachers involved, so we’ll let some student reflections put a cap on a powerful, 21st century learning experience.


To find out more about how to try something similar in your class, please check out this this website which documents my wonderful colleague Moira Litchfield’s experience as well. A huge thank you to Tosca Killoran for all her guidance, inspiration and vision along the way. Tosca is also responsible for documenting of our pilot for other educators, so a big shout out to her for being so selflessly serving to the greater educational community.

To find out more about the 21st century skills and PYP Attitudes evidenced through this experience, please check out this blog post.

One Response

  1. Fantastic work Reid! It was so wonderful to see the student engagement, their passion and commitment, and their sense of joy and pride in reaching their goals. Such a great learning opportunity for us educators too!

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