Last year, my district—Roosevelt (AZ) School District—was asked by Arizona State University’s (ASU) department of innovation and entrepreneurship to pilot a new educational program for middle school students. I was initially skeptical but curious to learn about this new type of learning experience, especially given the tagline: Global Problem Solvers.

Words like “inspire,” “global,” and “problem solver” make every teacher’s ears perk up. Not only are educators obsessed with getting kids to think critically and tackle real-world problems, we also want projects that motivate all students, because we know that some students don’t show interest in conventional assignments.

The road to creating agents of change
In the summer of 2017, ASU held a week-long professional development (PD) program for Cisco’s Global Problem Solvers (GPS) program with teachers from five schools in the Phoenix metro area to familiarize us with the intent and implementation of the program. I teach social studies, and our middle school’s math and science teachers joined me.

The GPS program is built on design thinking, a framework for creating new products and becoming social entrepreneurs. These projects allow mid-childhood, pre-teen, and early teenage learners to create viable business products, and the process encourages them to address problems within their community and the public at-large.

Upon returning to our school, our heads were full of rich possibilities: Would we engage in a school-wide GPS competition, could we develop cross-curricular connections, or even create higher taxonomy outputs? We decided to be ambitious. We reworked our fall schedule and added 35 minutes to the end of the school day Mondays through Thursdays to include all 85 eighth-graders in the GPS program.

We developed our program with a specific purpose. We knew an after-school club would dissuade the students we were targeting—those already disengaged during the school day—and needed to be creative, and efficient, with our time.

Our principal agreed to the schedule change and green-lit the program due to one overwhelming factor: our passion. After experiencing our excitement for the program, our passion became contagious and taught us an important lesson. If we walked into meetings with a plan and fervor, we knew we’d not only accomplish our goals, but we could also achieve administrative approval.

Student buy-in
Once we introduced the scope of the program, the students responded very well to being Global Problem Solvers. Each season (there are two animation programs available for free) provides a real-world challenge for a team of diverse teenagers to solve. The animated series then segues into in-depth articles about problems affecting a wide range of communities. By using design thinking, the students develop an idea, test it, and then create a business model canvas; they may or may not choose to leverage assets from the GPS series website.

Critical success factors with new types of learning
The most critical component to success with any new, progressive program is to adopt modeling from the top down: Initial and full-scale buy-in from administration, faculty, and staff leads to more engagement and enthusiasm from students.

When an instructor’s engagement runs high, students will begin to visualize success and ultimately have more fun with the project. During this process, teachers can also model academic debate by creating sentence frames for students to use when they disagree with each other. This relationship creates a positive and welcoming environment.

The second critical component to success is involving the larger community, not just instructors who are directly affiliated with the new program. For example, in our middle school, we engaged an ELA instructor who wanted to teach students soft skills that were included in a part of the GPS program, like building PowerPoint presentations, learning about public speaking, and crafting an elevator pitch for a project.

Here's how a school inspired students to become global problem solvers

The spark becomes a flame
We capped off our pilot with a community showcase that allowed parents and other stakeholders to experience what our students created. This exhibition was followed by internal competitions within eighth-grade homerooms, and in the final competition, we invited business leaders to lend credibility to the program.

One example of success included a robot sweeping the world’s oceans for debris and trash, accumulating items that threaten our world’s wildlife. The students did not stop at ideation; they pushed further to challenge the hidden danger in their solution, augmenting their robots to camouflage as sea turtles and avoid scaring creatures in the water.

Following the competition, our staff could not help but be moved by the commentary from students. One winning team member confided in an instructor that his goal was to be the first in his family to attend college, and now he was confident he wouldn’t need to rely on scholarships, since his new social-change project might pay his way through college once approved and patented.

When you push students out of their comfort zone while mirroring their own passion, the imagination cultivated is nothing short of remarkable. It’s hard to summon a better endorsement for the transformative potential of the programs inspiring students to become global leaders.

About the Author:

Edgar Ochoa is a junior high school teacher at Ed & Verma Pastor Elementary School in the Roosevelt School District in Phoenix, Arizona. He has taught middle school social studies at the district for 12 years.