Students Learn Lean Startup Process at geekStarter Workshop

We should not be asking kids what they want to be when they grow up; we should be asking “how do you want to change the world when you grow up?” That way you are encouraging them to think creatively.

– Joelle Foster, Executive Director, Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking

This weekend, Alberta university and high school students got to be entrepreneurs for a day.

This was the second year of the geekStarter Startup Workshop. Hosted by MindFuel and the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the University of Calgary, the workshop is a full-day, hands-on experience for students to learn and practice the Lean Startup methodology. The goal is to arm them with this knowledge so that they can apply the process to their own projects in the future.

Student teams in both robotics and synthetic biology attended from Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, High River, Canmore, Lacombe, and even Fort McMurray. They spent the day learning how to validate their ideas, challenge their assumptions, and iterate on their solutions.

Love the Problem, Not the Solution

The workshop was facilitated by Dr. Justin Pahara, CSO of Amino Labs and long-time supporter of geekStarter and STEM education. Amino Labs is a synthetic biology and STEM education startup based near Lethbridge. Their mission is to make genetic engineering accessible to everybody through their portable bioreactor kits and educational resources.

I had the great pleasure of being one of ten mentors during the session, who floated from table to table helping students work through hands-on activities in design thinking.

Mentors at geekStarter Startup Workshop
It’s still a little weird to see my name up on a slide next to all these other brilliant roboticists and synthetic biologists.

Design thinking revolves around empathy. That means understanding your end customer’s biggest challenges before you ever start building. It is much more important to focus on what problem you’re solving, instead of fixating on how you’re solving it.

By using this process, you avoid “square peg, round hole” syndrome, where you build something and search for a problem to plug it into. (I half-jokingly call it the “engineer’s problem.”)

An (Extra) Lean Startup Cycle

Teams spent the first half of the day exploring “How Should We?” questions. Pahara used the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to guide and inspire the students during the process.

UN Sustainable Development Goals 2016
Source: United Nations, 2015

“How Should We?” questions ask “How should we help [customer] overcome the problem of [challenge] in order to bring [value]?”

By framing the question this way, the students learned how to focus and define their problem. They learned how to identify the values that resonate most with their audience. For example, “How should we help university students access healthier meal plans to improve their overall health?” is a much more focused problem than vaguely claiming “we want to solve obesity.”

The teams also had a chance to survey each other. This helped them (roughly) validate their assumptions and prototype concepts. The feedback they gathered helped iterate new prototypes.

Although condensed into a day, the students got to experience all the parts of the Lean Startup cycle. Pahara emphasized that parts of the design thinking cycle can take months. That said, this experience will hopefully be valuable when the teams do their own projects.

Tomorrow’s Innovators, Today

Over the past few years, I’ve seen Alberta’s growing efforts toward inspiring innovation. I am incredibly excited when I see the energy and enthusiasm from these young students in the room. Each one is passionate about inspiring change. I think it’s important for us as the innovation community to continue encouraging that.

By giving these students the resources and opportunities to work in the “real world” early on, we prepare them better for the workforce of the future. This is where creative problem-solving starts, and this is where we start training the innovators of tomorrow.

I’m excited to see what will come from our geekStarter students next year!

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