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Exonians Excel at Social Innovation

Teams of students compete at regional contest and take home top honors.

Melanie Nelson
December 5, 2016

Seniors Maya Pierce, Joanna Papadakis and Melissa Lu at the UNH Social Venture Innovation Challenge competition in November. 

On a recent mid-November afternoon, as a steady rain tugged at the last of autumn’s leaves, nine teams of students from three New Hampshire schools — Phillips Exeter Academy, Portsmouth High School and The Derryfield School — assembled in the second floor theater of the University of New Hampshire’s Memorial Union Building. Accompanied by their faculty coaches, the students had come together to compete in the University’s Social Venture Innovation Challenge (SVIC), a program sponsored by the UNH Center for Innovation and Enterprise. Launched in 2013 with a mission of creatively addressing urgent social and environmental challenges, the SVIC, an annual event, has for the past three years offered two tracks — one for college students and a second for citizens from across the state of New Hampshire. A third track, for high schoolers, was piloted this year.

As the competition got under way, teams took the floor to present short videos introducing their respective concepts, followed by oral presentations and then questions from the four judges. Innovation and creativity ruled the day, with students conceiving ideas and apparatus to address everything from beach pollution to gender stereotyping in the media to the need for more consistent data in the solar industry. The winning team, comprised of four members of Exeter’s class of 2017 — seniors Kat Cucullo, Melissa Lu, Joanna Papadakis and Maya Pierce — was “The Lucky Stop,” a food-truck whose operators would use only almost-expired and “ugly” food (e.g. produce deemed too unattractive for the average consumer) to prepare meals. The Lucky Stop’s status as a “non-profit with a mission-related enterprise,” explains Cucullo, would allow its organizers to charge customers for meals on weekdays. Profits would then be rolled back into the business, permitting The Lucky Stop to become a mobile soup kitchen each weekend.

For three of Exeter’s four competing teams, participating in the inaugural high school track at this year’s Social Venture Innovation Challenge was the culminating project of a new senior elective called Social Innovation, a term-long course taught by Director of Service Learning Liz Reyes. While the Academy has long been known for its student-centered pedagogy, whereby students are expected to learn from one another in active dialogue, that learning has often occurred within the Harkness classroom. The debut of Social Innovation, says Reyes, marks a shift by Exeter to build upon traditional classroom learning with coursework that asks students to get out into the community and interact directly with people and agencies whose particular needs may inspire a more empathetic approach to problem-solving.

It’s a model that Exonians appear to be embracing. Case in point — in addition to The Lucky Stop’s big win, another Exeter team, “CareCard," whose members pitched the idea of collecting gift cards with leftover balances, pooling those resources, and then donating them to care centers for distribution to individuals or families in need, was one of only eight teams to be selected from across all three tracks to participate in the final round of the 2016 Social Venture Innovation Challenge, held in early December.

Care Card’s team members include seniors Nick Hall (left), Peter Chinburg (right), Javante McCoy and Stone Sulley.