Smith School Program Teaches High-Schoolers How to Solve Real World Problems

Smith School Program Teaches High-Schoolers How to Solve Real World Problems

by | Aug 28, 2018

The 28 high school students who stood huddled in a semi-circle, clad in business gear, were radiating nervous energy. They were about to start making business pitches, and Christina Elson, managing director of the Ed Snider Center, was giving them a pep talk. Elson thanked the students for being willing to take risks, get out of their comfort zones, and support each other along the way, especially during such an intense experience. At the end of the talk, the high-schoolers cheered.

The students were participants of the Snider Enterprise and Leadership Fellows (SELF) Program, a two-week, intensive business school immersion program for rising high school juniors and seniors. Elson serves as the faculty director of SELF, and her comments kicked off the program’s capstone activity: pitches for new, innovative product ideas. Five groups of students, known at SELF as ‘fellows,’ conceived, researched, and presented their ideas to a panel of judges. The ideas utilized a blend of cutting-edge technology, traditional business and marketing plans, and were uniquely aimed at solving one of society’s problems. In the end, prizes were awarded for first, second, and third place. But the experiences that the students had went well beyond what any prize might mean.

Now in its fourth year, SELF aims to introduce high-schoolers to life on a college campus, and to teach them about the fundamental principles of business they need to know to be successful in any career. But the program also challenges students to think about their own values, and emphasizes problem solving and empathy toward others. Michelle Gu, a SELF fellow from Gaithersburg, MD, learned about the program at Discover Maryland Day. She said that she’s interested in business, and also wanted to get a taste of what college life is all about. But there was more. “One of the reasons I chose to do this program is because I was so attracted to the Smith family philosophy,” Gu said. “It’s not just cut-throat and competitive, we’re actually welcoming and helping each other out.” Gu, who was a part of the winning team, said that she’d never really considered what her personal philosophy was before coming to the SELF program. “I just found that really helpful,” Gu said. “It was more than just setting a goal – it was thinking about what I value personally.”

And that is precisely what the faculty and staff hope to awaken in the fellows. “We want to allow students to think about being an entrepreneurial person, and what that means is that they have self-leadership, a life-long love of learning, and that they become genuinely productive members of society,” said Elson. She and her SELF co-directors Rajshree Agarwal (who is also the director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets) and Joe Bailey (who is also the Executive Director of Maryland’s prestigious QUEST Honors program) view these sorts of skills as fundamental, no matter what career track a student might eventually take. “Being able to think through problems, empathize with other people, and have a clear sense of your own personal values will help you throughout your life, no matter what you do. And you’ll be able to do good in the world,” Elson added.

These values were evident to the professionals who worked with the fellows. Brittney Posternock, a 31 year-old UX educator who lives in Arlington, VA, taught the fellows User Experience Design. In an email, she wrote that the students “… [were] great listeners with the ability to move through activities and content very quickly. Their questions [were] on topic and each and every one of them [was] genuinely passionate about soaking up any and all information with a growth mindset.” She further wrote that the SELF program was innovative, and helped build confidence in the students. “Exposing students to growing and emerging industries is exactly what a program like this should be doing,” she wrote.

This year’s curriculum contained offerings that you might expect from a business immersion program, like personal finance and strategy, but it also offered students other types of classes, like the User Experience Design class, as well as the opportunity to use cutting-edge virtual reality technology and to learn about businesses that have a long history of creating innovative products to solve problems identified by their customers, like the 3M Innovation Center on K Street NW in Washington, DC. There was also time dedicated to improvisation, a ropes course and other kinds of trust building exercises, and, of course, plenty of time and guidance for teams to work on their final projects – their business pitches.

Gu said that making the pitch was the highlight of the program for her. Despite the students being nervous, the presentations went off without a hitch – there were ideas for a water-saving shower head, an app to help you track your caloric and nutritive intake, a new kind of water filter, special backpacks for low-income students, and a special light to help guide nurses inserting IVs. Each team presented their ideas using multimedia, before the panel of judges. After each presentation, the judges offered advice and asked questions. Gu’s team’s invention, the light to aid nurses, came out on top. “We put so much into it,” Gu said. “And it was really nerve-wracking waiting to present and for the judges to decide.” But the judges were impressed. And Gu’s family, who came down to watch her present, were surprised. “This was the first time I’d seen her presenting in a business fashion,” said John Gu, Michelle’s father. “At home, we obviously have a father-daughter relationship, but I was surprised at how grown-up she is. She really grew a lot during these two weeks.” This sentiment was echoed by Ramani Lakkaraju and Srini Peyyalamitta, parents of Mekhali Peyyalamitta, a 17-year-old rising Junior from Ashburn, Virginia. The elder Pyyalamitta said that despite residing in Virginia, Mekhalli preferred to come to Maryland for the SELF program. Mekhali, whose team walked away with the prize for third place for their pitch for a backpack aimed specifically at low-income students, said that she was really excited to get out of her comfort zone, as she hadn’t really been away from home before, and said that living in the dorms was great. “The RAs were great to get to know,” she said. “And it was fun learning what living on campus is like.” She said that she really enjoyed working collaboratively with her teammates. “We all did the research, and came up with the idea together. We came to the project with separate ideas of what was important to us, but together we created a product that was much stronger,” she said.

All of the pitches impressed the judges and faculty. “I’ve heard that your pitches have been stronger than ever before,” said Victor Mullins, Associate Dean of the undergraduate program at the Robert H. Smith School. Mullins emphasized that this was quite the accomplishment, given what was expected of the students. They have to learn how to frame and analyze, examine and explore, and respond to problems, but at the same time listen to each other, empathize, and try to set goals. “It’s a lot,” he acknowledged, adding that those were the goals of the program, and the students had exceeded expectations. “And so good for you. You have the best days ahead of you,” he said.

Lia Kvatum is a freelance writer and producer based in Washington, DC.  In addition to the Ed Snider Center, her clients include The National Geographic Society, The Smithsonian Institution, PBS, and the Washington Post.  More of her work can be seen at