Social innovation at Exeter: Ideas to actions to solutions

Faculty and students are incorporating social innovation and design thinking into coursework and extracurricular endeavors.

Melanie Nelson
February 6, 2017
Social innovation students Melissa Lu, Maya Pierce, Kat Cucullo and Joanna Papadakis at Exeter

Seniors Melissa Lu, Maya Pierce, Kat Cucullo and Joanna Papadakis believe food trucks can alleviate hunger and curb food waste in New England.

Exeter is no stranger to innovation. In fact, its core pedagogy is predicated on the pioneering notion that students learn most effectively from one another via active dialogue. It should come as no surprise, then, that in recent years Academy faculty and students have begun to explore how to incorporate the principles of social innovation into coursework and extracurricular endeavors.

According to the Center for Social Innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a social innovation is “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions.” Unlike in industry, where innovation bolsters the company and its shareholders, the value that is created by social innovation flows to society.

For Exeter, considering how to create the kind of environment and conditions in which social innovation can flourish has meant widening the aperture on Harkness learning. As the stories below demonstrate, this expansion is leading to ideas and collaborations that may, one day, change the world.

Building from the Bedrock — the Class

In the fall of 2015, Exeter’s director of service learning, Liz Reyes, received an email from newly arrived Principal Instructor Lisa MacFarlane. Would Reyes know of any students who might be interested in competing in the University of New Hampshire’s Social Venture Innovation Challenge (SVIC)? A quick survey of Exeter Student Service Organization (ESSO) students, with whom Reyes regularly works, revealed that they were indeed intrigued, and soon three teams formed.

At that point, the SVIC, which had begun in 2013 with a mission of creatively addressing urgent social and environmental challenges, offered two competitive tracks, one for college students and a second for citizens from across New Hampshire. By virtue of their ages and educational levels, the Exonians entered their ideas in the second track, where, competing with 25-, 30- and 40-yearolds from the Granite State, Team RAD (Rural Area Diagnostics) Health came in fourth. A fire had been lit, and Academy administrators took note. Soon English Instructor and Director of Studies Brooks Moriarty ’87; P’18 approached Reyes about formalizing social innovation at Exeter by creating a course about it, and what began last year as a kind of experimental club has become a term-long senior elective called Social Innovation.

The course, populated with seniors of all stripes (four-year boarders, postgraduates, two-year day students), incorporates traditional elements of Harkness learning — student-driven discussion moderated by an instructor, group work — but adds a twist. “We believe it is crucial for students in Social Innovation to interact directly with clients and innovators,” Reyes says. She cites as an example an assignment in which students are asked to choose an environmental issue and then interview someone in the field: “I was surprised by how tentative the students were about connecting with their subjects and scheduling a time to talk. Initially, they wanted to do everything over email, including the actual interviews. I explained that it helps to see the person you are interviewing, that questions may change or the conversation may shift organically based upon the responses of the interviewee. Building empathy and understanding nuance are critical aspects of the course.”

Another central concept is human agency, the idea that people have the power to shape their own lives. In order to get her Social Innovation students to think critically about agency, Reyes asks them, prior to brainstorming potential solutions to perceived societal problems, to consider the following questions: Is it a community need, and how do we know it is a community need? “Through the exploration of agency, and of concepts like positive deviance and cultural taboo,” Reyes explains, “we are trying to show students that often the best, most powerful solutions come from within the group that is experiencing the problem.” The culminating project for Reyes’ Social Innovation students was the creation and submission of projects for last fall’s UNH Social Venture Innovation Challenge, held in mid-November on the UNH campus. Nine teams from three different secondary schools — Exeter, Portsmouth High School and The Derryfield School — competed in the program’s high school track, which was piloted in 2016.

The boys care card team.


Great Minds Think Differently — the Competition

As the 2016 SVIC competition got under way, teams took the floor to present short videos introducing their respective concepts, followed by oral presentations and then questions from the four judges. Innovation was both manifest and sophisticated, with students conceiving ideas and apparatus to address everything from beach pollution, to gender stereotyping in the media, to the need for more consistent data in the solar industry. The winning team, composed of four members of Exeter’s class of 2017 — Kat Cucullo, Melissa Lu, Joanna Papadakis and Maya Pierce — was “The Lucky Stop,” a food truck whose operators would use only almost-expired and “ugly” food (produce deemed too unattractive for the average consumer) to prepare meals.

It was a winning idea that almost didn’t happen. According to Lu, arriving at The Lucky Stop was “a long process because we went through approximately 15 other ideas first.” Cucullo concurs: “Our original idea was to create a composting truck to collect food waste and then use that waste to grow a garden on top of the truck. We were all in love with the idea until we found out someone had already pitched it at last year’s SVIC.” After that, continues Cucullo, “our other ideas kept missing the mark.” In fact, it wasn’t until the very last class brainstorm day that things started to coalesce.

“We were reflecting on a recent field trip to St. Vincent de Paul [a community assistance center in Exeter], where we learned about the food pantry and local residents who are unable to reach it due to disabilities or transportation issues,” Lu says. “At the same time,” Pierce adds, “I remembered a clip I had come across from John Oliver’s show ‘Last Week Tonight.’ It highlighted food waste and showed this guy traipsing around on a mound of discarded lettuce.” Soon thereafter came the light bulb moment — a food truck with a mission to wipe out hunger. “Our next step,” Papadakis explains, “was to divvy up the work and get going.

To ensure feasibility and impact, the girls left no stone unturned, conducting extensive online research, calling supermarkets and restaurants, poring over maps showing areas of New England with the highest rates of food insecurity, and even sitting down with the manager of Lexie’s, a popular eatery in Exeter that, as luck would have it, also runs a food truck. When the deadline arrived to submit their concept video and materials to the SVIC, The Lucky Stop had become an idea with, well, wheels.

Cucullo outlines how a typical day might unfold: “Mornings would be spent collecting food — primarily fruits and vegetables, which spoil quickly — from farms, supermarkets and restaurants. Because of our status as a nonprofit with a mission-related enterprise, these food donors would get to take a tax deduction. After pickup, the produce would be delivered to a commissary kitchen for meal preparation, and then out to the streets in time for lunch.”

For their trial sales area, Team Lucky Stop selected Boston, a city with a thriving food truck scene. The roving purveyors would charge for weekday lunches, with revenues being cycled directly back into the nonprofit, so that on Saturdays and Sundays, the truck could become a mobile soup kitchen in Suffolk County, an area that includes Boston and has a high rate of food insecurity.

For their excellent idea, as well as their eloquent and thorough description of how it would be implemented, Team Lucky Stop won the high school track of the Social Venture Innovation Challenge, including $500 in prize money to help promote innovation at Exeter. The team’s success, Pierce says, was built on its diversity. “We are all so different, and we each brought our own unique talents and strengths to the table. Kat is great at videography, so she took on that piece; Joanna was a dutiful researcher; Melissa founded Exeter’s Business Club, so she brought that perspective; and I am involved in theater, which helped in presenting our concept.”

Science Instructor David Gulick with a new laser cutter in Exeter's maker space.


A Feedback Loop with Feelings — the Design Approach

In June 2015, Exeter Trustee Jennifer Holleran ’86, an educational consultant who also serves as the executive director of Startup:Education, a nonprofit created in 2010 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ’02 and his wife, Priscilla Chan, was planning a whirlwind tour of several San Francisco-area schools and wished to know if a few Exeter teachers were interested in joining her. Science Instructors David Gulick and Erik Janicki and History Instructor Meg Foley, the Bates-Russell Distinguished Faculty Professor, jumped at the chance.

While all of the schools on the junket were partnering with Startup:Education, it soon became clear to Gulick and his colleagues that each had a unique mission and philosophy, and often served a special population of learners. “East Palo Alto Academy was focusing on first-generation  American students. Summit Public Schools were working on individualized education. Each place we visited was doing something cutting edge and spectacular,” he recalls. However, the approach of two schools in particular, The Nueva School and the Institute of Design at Stanford, struck a chord with Gulick and his colleagues. “Each of these places has embraced design thinking,” he explains, “and Nueva has even taken the step of incorporating it at all levels, from early elementary through high school.”

Design thinking, Gulick explains, is a “methodology or process of design that puts at the front end the step of getting to know the person or people for whom you will be designing.” Like Reyes’ approach with her Social Innovation students, the initial steps in design thinking (interviewing and observation) are intended to build empathy. “From there,” Gulick adds, “you move into brainstorming and the creation of a prototype. An added bonus of the frequent client communication that occurs in design thinking is that you learn early on what is working and what is not, and then modify accordingly.”

So, what did Gulick, Foley and Janicki see in the Bay-area students whom they watched apply design thinking? “We saw potential,” Gulick says. “We saw kids making progress even when they encountered setbacks. We saw students realize that their first ideas wouldn’t be their last ideas. Ultimately, we came to see how design thinking might fit within our own Harkness curriculum and add value.”

Back on campus, the trio is helping design thinking to germinate. A maker space, where students can test out ideas and build prototypes using a band saw, laser cutter, and other high-tech equipment and programs, was launched in 2015, and Gulick and Foley will co-teach a new course on design thinking this spring. They are currently finalizing content for the course, which will be interdisciplinary. “After all,” Gulick says, “design crosses boundaries.

Seniors Sydney Yoon, Mac Perry and Meghan Chou. 

Scattering Ideas — the Cross-Pollination

Each summer since 2010, when Exeter first became involved with the Student Global Leadership Institute (SGLI), the Academy has sent three students and one teacher to Honolulu’s Punahou School, which directs and hosts the program. Drawing participants from around the world, each two-week-long institute is organized around a specific theme — 2016’s was conservation — and is composed of daily classes and networking sessions with local businesspeople, many of them Punahou alumni.

The overarching goal of the SGLI is “to develop a community of international youth leaders who understand and are engaged in shared global challenges and who galvanize positive social change.” Beyond attending the institute, the students sent by each constituent school are expected to implement a project of significance back on their home campuses by the following May. While the teacher who accompanies them helps to guide this process, the bulk of the work is undertaken by the students, who send regular progress reports to SGLI Director Chai Reddy.

This year’s Exonian attendees — seniors Meghan Chou, McCord “Mac” Perry and Seungmin “Sydney” Yoon — have chosen to undertake as their major project the installation of campus green spaces in the form of nooks of trees and native bushes. Explains Academy Science Instructor Tanya Waterman, who chaperoned the students at Punahou and worked with them to identify their project theme, “They want to do this as much for the personal well-being of students on campus as for the sake of the environment.” Chou elaborates: “While global warming and climate change were certainly top of mind when we were considering this idea, the well-being component made it feel especially timely and relevant. Research has proven that being in nature has positive psychological and physiological consequences, like lowering blood pressure and stress and lifting the spirits.”

Next steps, Chou says, include coordinating with the Academy’s facilities team on where and how to plant, and then spreading the word to the rest of the community. If all goes as planned, the project will come to its fruition on Climate Action Day in April, when Chou, Perry and Yoon hope to galvanize their fellow students to assist with plantings. “We feel that weaving our project into the slate of activities and programs that occur on Climate Action Day will help to raise awareness and energize the community,” Chou says. “We will try to make it an ongoing event. We’d love for that to be our legacy after we graduate.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2017 edition of The Exeter Bulletin.