A UGA summer program is equipping Clarke County high school students to lead and look for innovative solutions to challenges they encounter.

During InnovateU, around 20 Athens-Clarke County high school students were grouped into teams to develop new solutions for helping high school students transition to adulthood.

One team, the Kollaborating Kangaroos, developed the P3 Program, an idea for a three-year program where students participate in different classes and activities to find their passion, then get matched with possible careers based on their passion and engaging in virtual reality experiences for those careers to get first-hand exposure to them, before deciding on and announcing their chosen path.

“So with this program, we will offer students preparation along the way to discover their passion and purpose,” said Gillian Williams, a rising ninth grader at Clarke Central High School.

InnovateU, developed by the UGA Office of the President in partnership with the Clarke County School District, empowers Athens-Clarke County high school students to solve real-world business challenges through leadership and innovative problem solving skills, with the help of student mentors and local business professionals. The program met twice a week throughout the month of June.

Faculty from the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, helped students develop skills they would need to work effectively within a team: collaboration, communication and conflict resolution.

Meanwhile, faculty from the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences and UGA Entrepreneurship Program, located within the Terry College of Business, led the students through a five-step, client-centered process known as design thinking to develop their solutions.

As the first step in design thinking, students had to interview family, friends, and others and ask them questions to learn more about their experiences in transitioning from high school to adulthood. Then, students defined the problem they would attempt to solve based on the problems and experiences they learned from the people they interviewed.

After defining the problem, the time came to brainstorm, with each team developing hundreds of different ideas, filling up boards with Post-it notes. For the Kollaborating Kangaroos, those ideas ranged from mentoring opportunities to career assessments to apps.

From those hundreds of Post-it notes, each team narrowed it down to their one idea.

“Finding something that we all agreed on and narrowing it down was challenging,” said Joey Kelleher, a rising junior at Clarke Central High School. “That is where it helped to look back at our interviews and their reflections on what they had been through to help us narrow down our idea

Team members also credited the leadership skills they learned for aiding that process.

“We communicated with each other, put all of our contributions together and found the best idea,” said Xavier Wymbs, a rising junior at Cedar Shoals High School.

Their student mentor, Vanessa Sachs, and local business mentor, Evan Elder from Synovus Bank, played a key role in helping them develop their final idea.

“Vanessa helped us come up with the idea to include the aptitude test, while Evan helped us come up with the idea for the virtual reality submergence,” Wymbs said.

The students did an amazing job developing their solution, said Sachs, a graduate student in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“Over the course of the program, it felt like they had a lot of confidence, knew what they were talking about with design thinking, and believed in their solution and proposal,” she said.

The program also helped Sachs develop her leadership skills, she said.

“I feel like I really learned from them,” Sachs said. “I enjoyed hearing their perspectives and it reminds me that it is always good to hear others’ perspectives because everyone comes from different situations and those differences in perspective can help in solving challenges.”

It was powerful to see the students grow as teams and develop their ideas over the course of the four-week program, said Elder.

“I witnessed the transition of these young ladies and gentlemen with their ideas, connection, collaboration, energy and laughter from the first day of the program to now,” he said. “These skills and traits are all things that you want to see out of future and potential employees.”

Other business mentors included Errol Wint from Caterpillar, Fenwick Broyard and Madeline Bates from Creature Comforts, and Jeff Petrea and Katie Walker from Georgia Power.

Once they settled on an idea, the time came to develop a prototype for the idea and test out their concept before making their final pitch to university and school system leaders on June 30 at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries.

Besides the virtual reality submergence program, other ideas included an app where young people could match with mentors in different careers; an online dashboard for high school students to track academics, possible career paths, and mentorship opportunities; and a book that would guide young people through activities and allow them to reflect on those activities to help determine their next steps after high school.

Programs like Innovate U help students learn to apply their classroom skills to real world contexts, said Xernona Thomas, Clarke County School District superintendent

“That is what helps make learning fun and meaningful and that is what a program like this does,” Thomas said. “We are excited for our students to have this opportunity.”

Students said learning both leadership skills and design thinking together has given them tools which they will be able to use as they continue through high school.

“We learned skills like interviewing and public speaking and resume building that will definitely help us in the future,” said Kelleher.

InnovateU represents the university’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship, said Kyle Tschepikow, UGA executive director of business engagement and innovation.

“Programs like this represent ultimately what the university is designed to do,” Tschepikow said. “That is to empower the next generation of leaders to create better communities and a better world around us, for all of us.”

Tschepikow also thanked the industries who contributed mentors to the program for their support.

“Our industry mentors play a critical role in this program, and we are grateful for the support we have received from these industries,” he said. “We also appreciate our partnership with the Clarke County School District and their support of this program.”

Writer: Charlie Bauder; 706-542-7039; charlie.bauder@fanning.uga.edu
Contact: Lauren Healey; 706-542-7350; lauren.healey@fanning.uga.edu