#InnovateCincy – Real-World Problem Solving Event

InnovateCincy - Blog Header

This year, I was fortunate enough to help plan the first #InnovateCincy Camp held at the Xavier Center for Innovation with David Knapp (Loveland Schools), Tom Merrill (Xavier Center for Innovation), Natasha Adams (Forest Hills), Marci Campbell, and Richard Zreik. #InnovateCincy brought educators and students together to solve four authentic business challenges. The goal of the event wasn’t simply to solve challenges but to support and encourage an Innovator’s Mindset. An Innovator’s Mindset includes the following characteristics: empathetic, problem-finders, risk-takers, networked, observant, creators, resilient, and reflective. #InnovateCincy welcomed twelve educator participants from Forest Hills, Loveland, & Lakota, and forty-eight students (6th-12th grade) from Forest Hills, Loveland, Beechwood, and St. Mary school districts.

What did we do at #InnovateCincy?

InnovateCincy Collage

We solved challenges for Procter & Gamble (P&G), Fern, General Tool Company (GTC), and Peep using Stanford d.School’s Design Thinking Framework. To start, we divided into twelve groups: two adult groups, two high school groups, and eight elementary/middle school groups. Student groups were paired with a coach to help facilitate the process. Each day, we learned about the design thinking process and then implemented it within our groups.

The Stanford.d Design Thinking Framework consists of the following steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Step 1: Empathize

On the first day, we learned about design thinking, our purpose, and then listened to businesses pitch their challenges. Students and educators asked questions of the businesses and were then given the task of securing empathy interviews. For students, after the businesses presented their pitch, they immediately went into problem-solving mode since they weren’t used to going through a problem-solving process. A paradigm shift was necessary for students…and adults.

The next day, each team called their interview subjects which represented the “customer” and optimally an extreme user. By understanding the needs of extreme users, this allows you to solve the challenge with them in mind which ultimately also meets the needs of users in between.

As I watched the event unfold (day 2), the interviews represented a turning point for students as they began to deconstruct the interviewees’ answers. Students were timid about asking questions at first but quickly came out of their shell. I think this was when the event started to feel like it was “real” and not just a homework assignment or simulation.

After the interviews, participants documented what they “observed.”

Step 2: Define

In the Define phase, groups determine which challenge they wish to tackle.

On the second day, after our interviews, we created insights based on our observations (verbal and non-verbal). Insight post-it notes were scattered, first in a frenzied way but then organized and clustered as insights were clustered by type. After everyone had contributed to the insights, teams turned them into “How might we…” statements and then voted (using a process, of course) on which “How might we” statement they wanted to solve.

Step 3: Ideate

Ideating, which happened on day 3, involved participant’s focusing on idea generation (Standford.d). For our particular challenges, most didn’t have constraints with the exception of Peep. Students loved brainstorming ideas, and this was when their creative genius emerged. As a coach and an observer, I watched and listened to students generating ideas I would have never thought of…and I consider myself to be creative. This is the BEAUTY of involving students. They are quite brilliant and have many creative thoughts swirling in their brains. Again, post-it notes were ripped off their pads so quickly that students stumbled upon one another in their attempt to grab another. Yes! That’s what we wanted – engagement and creative ideas using what they learned in steps one and two!

On the first day, students struggled to come up with a team name which was their first activity. By day 3, they were overflowing with ideas after they started tapping into the creative side of their brain.

Step 4: Prototype

By the end of the third day, the all teams had at least one prototype. Some of the teams built fancy apps using large sheets of paper, while others built intricate physical prototypes using play doh and cardboard, and others found their way into storyboard web apps helping them forge ahead with their solution. Every day, the time seemed to go more and more quickly as teams were “all in” on their challenge.

Step 5: Test

In Test mode, we solicited feedback about the prototypes we created from the businesses. Our event culminated in “pitch decks” each team built to explain their solution to the business challenge. At 1 PM on Thursday, parents, and businesses piled into the Xavier Center for Innovation as students and educators nervously awaited delivering their five-minute pitch. I have to say, as one of the planning team, I felt such excitement and reverence as students and educators pitched AMAZING solutions to the challenges. The presenters beamed with pride and bubbled with energy, despite spending four long days working on a single challenge.


The real benefit of this event wasn’t just the solution to the challenges; it was the process. If you watched the event, students and educators opened their minds and began to think differently, they realized the power of understanding the end-user and how it changes your perspective. Fortunately, whether you attended the event or not, we had a team of students led by their teacher chronicle the event. We should have these videos ready in August!

I learned:

  • It is powerful for students to see educators learning and to co-learn
  • Students are capable of generating brilliant solutions (I knew this but watching it was phenomenal)
  • Students enjoy the process of solving an authentic problem
  • Switching into creative mode takes time for anyone used to constrained thinking
  • In education, we need to continue working on soft skills for our students, so they are comfortable presenting in front of large groups


View our #InnovateCincy Spark Box


If you are interested in participating or know a business that would like to offer a challenge next year, please email christinemccormickliddle@gmail.com.