How (Un)Knowns Can Lead to Innovation

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.” —Donald Rumsfeld

Michelle Kusel

These (un)knowns lead to the practice of innovation: The need to exercise creativity, critical and strategic thinking, and problem solving skills. In a world that continually surprises us, there is so much that we don’t know we don’t know which makes innovation so direly critical. Don’t take my word for it. The Bloomberg Job Skills Report named the top four skills desired in the workforce to be: communication, strategic thinking, leadership, and creative problem-solving. 

(cough cough) They just summarized innovation (cough cough). 

Bloomberg goes on to say that these are skills employers want but can’t find. Let me repeat that for those in the back: Recruiters want these skills but can’t find them in candidates.

Why can’t they find them? If innovation is so critical, how are we, as educators, ensuring students develop this skill? Where do we create the space to breathe, to invent, to question, to innovate? (1)I get it. This year has been something else. Making the statement “engaging students is difficult with remote learning” is perhaps the understatement of the year (and there are a lot of understatements to choose from this year). But we have to keep trying; for the sake of our students and for the sake of our future.

2020 has provided us with an amazing canvas to demonstrate innovation and ingenuity. Let’s be clear, I’m not dismissing the headaches 2020 has also provided us, but let’s defend the silver lining, shall we? (takes out rose colored glasses and tosses hair)


With Innovation, Comes Opportunity

Prior to a global pandemic, opportunities tended to be geographically limited. Now, even a first grader can use video conferencing. No, really. My son is in first grade and uses it every day for school without assistance.

This is an amazing time to make the world a bit smaller and Uncharted Learning and Miami University Ohio took full advantage of this opportunity.

three female students social distance learningFive of Uncharted Learning’s ACCELeratoredu high school students across the country joined together with college students from Miami University's John W. Altman Institute for Entrepreneurship to participate in Startup Weekend

“Sponsored by Techstars®, Startup Weekend Miami is a 48-hour weekend event, during which groups of student-founders, developers, managers, marketing experts, engineers and more pitch ideas for new startup companies, form teams around those ideas, and work to develop a working prototype, demo, or presentation by Sunday afternoon” (Techstars Startup, 2020). 

Each group consisted of three or four students and was student driven. Mentors dropped into sessions throughout the weekend to provide advice and guidance, but not to supervise. Groups were student-led: they directed their learning, their productivity, and their results. Students were charged with thinking up their idea, working with each other effectively through teleconference, and exercising creativity to make their businesses come to life. This aligns with the American Management Association (AMA) Critical Skills Survey where the top three skills identified were critical thinking, effective communication, and innovation.

Catching up with one of the five selected students

Eshan, from Vista Ridge High School in Austin, Texas, said that he learned how to “fall in love with the problem” during the weekend. His teacher, Dana Jones, commended Eshan’s ability to fit right in with the college students. Ms. Jones said, “Eshan wasn’t intimidated at all [being in a college space]. He expressed his opinion with confidence and wasn’t afraid to speak out because they were older than he was.”

Eshan certainly developed this confidence in part through Ms. Jones and her INCubatoredu and ACCELeratoredu classes. Ms. Jones believes that to effectively teach students, you have to give them space. “As an INCubatoredu teacher, I have to make sure [the students] know what they’re doing but then I need to let them go and explore.” This is exactly how our curriculum is designed: to challenge and support students while also giving them space to innovate.

Eshan also mentioned that everything he needed to know for the college startup weekend, he learned from his ACCELeratoredu class! Way to have some known knowns, Eshan! But how about some known unknowns? 

More than just taking care of classes

Sierra Scott TweetFor that, we turn to Sierra, a senior from Centennial High School with dual enrollment at Middle Tennessee State University. Sierra has experienced a constant known unknown in her life: how she could make the world better. “I’d go to school and all I kept thinking about was how I could better the world … I was going to high school every day just to get the classes taken care of.”

School is learning. Learning is critical. Learning should be exhilarating. But for Sierra it wasn’t. She needed space to create this excitement. She needed to breathe, to invent, to question, and to innovate. 

Thankfully, Sierra was approached last year by a teacher at her school to apply to their new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (EIC)’s program, (powered by INCubatoredu, high school entrepreneurship class curriculum).

In INCubatoredu, Sierra said she “was able to surround myself with other [creative] people. I was able to learn so many different things I never would have learned if I never took this course. It’s made me think more entrepreneur-like” which to Sierra means thinking creatively and innovatively, always asking ‘why not?’ and staying ambitious and hungry.

This hunger led to her participation in the Miami Ohio Startup Weekend and her team being named a finalist in the competition of over 130 students. Her teacher, Stephanie Thomas, said that Sierra “has the capability and desire to be a future business leader.”

Ms. Thomas is right. The Future of Jobs Report 2020 from the World Economic Forum claims the number one skill needed in the workforce in 2025 will be analytical thinking and innovation. Sierra is well on her way. As she embraces opportunities like INCubatoredu and the Miami Ohio weekend she has learned “a different way of thinking … you get to find a piece of yourself that you didn’t know you had within you because the ideas are limitless.”

Sierra enjoyed her experience during the startup weekend with Miami so much, she is strongly considering attending the institution in the Fall and has already spoken with faculty in the Farmer School of Business. Sierra was grateful for the opportunity to connect with faculty and students, realizing that in any other year, she may not have had this opportunity as the startup weekend experience was offered online for the first time this year because of the pandemic.

Through the Eyes of a Judge having our students partake in the weekend, members of the Uncharted Learning team had the honor of serving as judges and mentors. Having a direct lens into the student learning experience is critical to the success of keeping our curriculum evergreen. As a judge, I found myself wanting to support each and every business that was pitched to me. The ideas were exciting, but perhaps even more exciting were the students' commitment to something beyond themselves. They stood up to hard questions, gave thoughtful answers, and allowed their passion to shine through. In a world where we are often instructed to stifle our passion for the sake of professionalism, I loved seeing the students balance on this tightrope.

Partnerships with Higher Education

Another university partnership amplified due to the pandemic is Millikin University. Millikin University’s Center for Entrepreneurship is hosting its annual Freshman Business Plan Competition for the first time online this December. Millikin has asked the high school students in our ACCELeratoredu program to serve as student judges. Our students will be on the other side of a pitch as a judge! Flipping the classroom has never been more literal than in this opportunity! Not only does this provide the students with a window into college learning, but it also helps them reimagine how to give a successful pitch as they sit in the judges chair.

Partnerships with higher education institutions are important to Uncharted Learning and our member high schools. We work to encourage and support these partnerships in every way possible. Member schools have reported waived application fees, dual credit opportunities, and AP credit as ways students are benefiting from the INCubatoredu and ACCELeratoredu programs.

Volunteer Mentors & Coaches

Additionally, many of our member schools have alumni from local colleges Jones, Danaand universities who serve as volunteer mentors and coaches. Ms. Jones, INCubatoredu and ACCELeratoredu teacher from Vista Ridge High School in Texas, adores her volunteers. “People that are in love with entrepreneurship want to pass it along and the thought of passing it along to a high school student really excites them.”

Ray Marano, a volunteer mentor at Mundelein High School in Illinois, echoes Ms. Jones’ thoughts. “Watching students passionately speak about their entrepreneurial idea and realizing I play a role in that passion gives me a great appreciation for giving back as well as a personal growth I never imagined.”

At Uncharted Learning, we couldn’t agree more. We love entrepreneurship and always look for ways to support students.  We are confident that our work will expand their minds, world views, and abilities to practice innovation. Particularly in a year of so many unknown unknowns, a known known is that innovation and entrepreneurship skill development is preparing students to be successful in their next life chapter.


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