Noble Impact Introduces Entrepreneurship Program to eStem Third Graders

After successfully introducing its student entrepreneurship program to Little Rock's eStem Public Charter High School, Noble Impact decided to take on third graders.

Noble Impact, the nonprofit organization that partners with the Clinton School of Public Service to engage students at the "intersection of public service and entrepreneurship," was integrated into the eStem High curriculum this past school year. Noble co-founder Chad Williamson last summer helped start a prototype program with students in grades 3-5 at a school in Tampa, Fla. It was a big hit, and that experience convinced him to test the Noble program with eStem third graders.

The overall Noble Impact program was introduced to eStem sophomores last fall (Noble 101) and will be expanded to juniors and seniors in the 2014-15 school year (Noble 201). The following year, a "Noble 301" will offer internships and match students with community partners and at some point, an "Introduction to Noble" class will be offered to freshmen.  

Williamson, who led the "Noble 101" class at eStem, saw his students exceed expectations. In their first year, the Noble students participated at Startup Weekend Northwest Arkansas, where they created a startup and won prizes, and at the inaugural High School Startup Weekend, where eStem teams won prizes.

Plus, Noble student Sydney Brazil, 16, successfully launched her own startup, a gourmet donut “holery” called The Hole Thing that’s partnered with Little Rock's Copper Grill and now appears on the restaurant’s dessert menu.

Based on his experience in Tampa and with eStem sophomores, Williamson felt comfortable expanding it to elementary school. School officials were happy to oblige. John Bacon, eStem CEO, has been a vocal supporter of the Noble program and believes it can one day be implemented at all grade levels.

"Our students are becoming career ready," he said. "We love seeing their hard work pay off. Noble Impact has done great work, and we love that eStem students are leading the change in how we look at education."

Noble introduces students to public service via entrepreneurship, and it uses the portable Lean Canvas startup model to do so. The "social good" aspect of launching a business that Noble stresses was not watered down for the third graders. Williamson said eStem’s third graders took to the concept without a hitch.

"All the 'companies' created by the third graders were socially driven," he said. "They addressed issues that were classroom issues, and even did customer validation working through the Lean Canvas approach."

The program was administered over two weeks in late May. Williamson sat in on classes while two of its third-grade teachers, Mandy Ellis and Faith White, ran the program. Meanwhile, Noble students from eStem High including Brazil crossed Third Street each morning of the program to serve as mentors.

"I loved watching the third graders work through the Lean Canvas," Brazil said. "They solve problems in the most creative ways. These third graders have shown me that the next stage of entrepreneurs are not only going to be high schoolers but also elementary students."

That's a point Williamson is happy to evangelize. He believes kids can accomplish much more than many adults are ready to concede. All they need is a nudge in the right direction. All 98 third graders at eStem were given that nudge through Noble, which received rave reviews from students and their parents.

"We wanted this to be available to all the students and not become something for just the 'gifted and talented' kids," Williamson said. "A pilot program had been successful in Tampa and it led to an after-school program, so I went into this understanding that third graders could get this."

Still, kids at such a young age can be unpredictable. Ellis admits that the introduction of the program to her kids represented a "leap into the unknown."

"I'm generally pretty structured, and while there is a structure to Noble Impact's process, much of the work was left up to the kids," she said. "They were thrilled when they saw the high school students from the Noble Impact class. They really served as mentors to guide our third graders through the process of establishing a company, identifying a real life classroom issue, and attacking that issue with a solution. From the first day, I had parents emailing me to say that their children were talking about their 'companies' at home."  

The third-grade program emphasized students' learning to pitch their personal stories, develop their ability to listen, and tell stories. Their goals were to identify issues within their classrooms and then work toward solutions. "Really, the Common Core standards of speaking and listening," Williamson said. "That was a key component."

Students were divided into teams of four with each team identifying an issue that needed a solution and working on a team pitch. Each team developed a company name, logo and colors, and even a tagline. Sample company names: Crate Captains, The Dragon Engineers.

Team pitches included a greeting, an introduction, the story, statistics, the idea for a solution, and a gratitude-based closing. Each member of a team was responsible for a section of the pitch.

"I had a group of students that noticed a problem with organization in the classroom," Ellis said. "They took the initiative to present their suggestions to their classmates. As a class, we voted to implement their ideas and their supply crates were kept tidy for the rest of the school year. I barely had to manage the process because the kids really owned it."

Students were evaluated based on their teams' final pitches using a rubric adapted from Noble's high school curriculum.

"They were given the rubric early on so that their teams could reference it as they developed their pitches," Ellis said. "Before the final pitches, each group practiced before their classmates, who used the rubric to offer feedback on the presentations. It was affirming to see how my students have grown this year in their ability to give constructive criticism in a positive way and how that affected their classmates to make improvements in their pitches."

Williamson said Noble is talking with school officials about how the program could be implemented at different grade levels. He wants to make sure it can be delivered "with as much quality as possible." For now, Noble is included officially in the eStem High curriculum, but more expansion at eStem's lower grades is a real possibility.

"The teachers have been energized by this," he said. "We're giving the content, and the teachers are delivering it. That's especially how it would be in the elementary setting. It's cool to see the content delivered in different ways."

Williamson wants to provide professional development for teachers to implement the Noble program in their classrooms, and that training could take the form of seminars held at the Clinton School.

"With another year under our belt to implement the curriculum, and taking the best practices that we've learned in our first year at eStem, we want to create that professional development," he said.

Meanwhile, parents seem to be on board to this new approach, Ellis said.

"In the days following my students' final pitches, I received extremely positive feedback from parents," she said. "One mom said that she was drawn in and became emotional during several of the group's pitches. One of the tenets of Noble Impact is to affect your listeners with a compelling story. Our students did just that. Quite a few parents praised the program for boosting their children's confidence and pride in a job well done."

The extension of the program to the third grade at eStem, from Williamson's perspective, was a big win. He sees the program as introducing the tenets of entrepreneurship (not a bad thing in a free market society), promoting social responsibility and ultimately, providing tools to thrive later in life whether a student engages entrepreneurship or not.   

"Third graders are able to voice their ideas, and want their voices heard, just as much as a high school student," he said. "Whether it's a third grade or 12th grade curriculum, you can develop an idea to that cognitive level."