For Students to Thrive in the Digital Economy

Pathways for change agents begin in middle school.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mary de Wysocki

Adolescent years are transformative. Socially, young adults begin to understand their value, their desires and their communities. Cognitively, this age is a critical period of development.

When children are in middle school, their development is dramatic. What does this translate to? Adolescents begin to better understand abstract thinking, become more independent with their viewpoints and start to desire a broader world-view – this shift is largely based on their new ability to consider more complex moral issues.

This pivotal point of development in our children is a call-to-action, and I believe that education must tap into this innate need more deeply and directly.

Our society today

When we evaluate job openings on the market today, we see increasing opportunities in small and medium-sized businesses. Our start-up workforce is expanding, which means that when it comes to education we need to de-mystify what it means to be an entrepreneur.

If we want our youth to thrive in today’s digital economy, it’s essential to give them a new type of lens.

Business today is also driven by purpose, one of the key factors in the development of our youth’s moral compass during middle school years. Increasingly, young adults want to work with organizations that make a difference, and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

We must recognize this need and nurture it – at the right time.

The more schools begin to incorporate programs that help youth think beyond themselves, the more learners will begin to incorporate soft skills and critical thinking pathways, both of which prepare them for internships and careers of the future. This type of education is especially important for young women. During the adolescent period in a girl’s education, a majority of young female learners opt-out of STEM-oriented pathways.

Innovation research tells us that bringing diverse backgrounds and perspectives together is what fuels breakthroughs.

This combination, and the drive to address the needs of today’s youth, is what drove our team develop a social change program for middle schoolers called Global Problem Solvers: The Series.

Equipping students for global change

Every day we find a problem we need to solve, which can be as simple as opening a jar or as complex as operating a new technology system. However, we don’t always recognize these that these issues require a specific set of skills.

Meeting every day challenges – both large and small – is precisely what we need to nurture in our education system. These skills are a muscle that we have the power to strengthen through specific types of developmental training.

There’s a great amount of research that tells us we’re born with creativity and problem-solving skills; as we get older, these abilities are socialized out of us. In fact, Australian research found that age impacts a student’s interest in studying Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Delaying the introduction of this subject until secondary school is too late – most students have already decided against a further study in ICT at this point.

Cisco developed Global Problem Solvers (GPS): The Series program specifically for middle school students. The series fosters critical thinking and problem solving skills in youth at the right developmental time, using the classroom as a venue fostering interest in new subject matter. The program prepares learners with the business and career skills they will need as they move into the job market.

Each episode in the animated web series follows a team of global teenagers with unique problem solving skills, inspiring students to solve social, economic and environmental problems. Each season includes a teacher’s guide to aid students and educators as they shape ideas into social enterprises.

By approaching social change as entrepreneurs, and applying technology, students develop solutions that are scalable and sustainable. The GPS: The Series program is available for free in English, Spanish, French and Hindi to encourage educators to help middle school students incorporate new ways of thinking into their classrooms.

Students in action

One goal of innovative, supplemental program should be to help educators to build on curriculum and create experiences that inspires and foster engagement and life skills– the GPS: The Series program is no different.

The program was adopted by a range of school districts and middle school classrooms starting in summer 2017, spurning student interest in global issues like access to clean water and food safety.

Teachers have reported that students were more engaged and motivated while working on the program, especially reluctant learners One of the reasons we developed this program with a young female protagonist is to help young women demystify the potential of technology and STEM as a career path.

By putting female teenage characters front and center – and creating the digital skills superhero as a female – we hope to create more interest and equity in the field.

As more educational spaces experiment with innovation in education, here are some important building blocks to keep in mind:

  1. Storytelling – We used animation as a way to bring our story to life. Why? With animation we are leveraging a proven process that helps to mentor and coach students through an idea and sustainable solution. It’s a deconstructed framework, or methodology: Characters encounter problems, brainstorm options, make mistakes and then come to a solution that they believe is viable.


  1. Community – We seek local, regional or global issues that students care about. Since middle schoolers are developing the analytical portions of their brain (like hypothesis formation, reasoning with data and complex reflection), they love to imagine what different skills they can bring a problem. For example, one of our teams designed a device for the elderly – inspired by their grandparents – that aids with balance issues, and another team proposed a technology that could help their own neighborhoods prevent canal flooding.


  1. Design thinking – With design thinking, students envision and develop products, becoming social entrepreneurs, or “innovators”. One example of this type of thought is to walk into an environment, like a hospital, and experience its surroundings from the patient perspective. The design thinking process is used by companies when developing products, and can be used in the classroom, too. By using this method of thought, one student designed a life-saving Internet of Things (IoT) sensor device for hospitals to identify people in distress.

Given a deeper, more detailed study, adolescent years may be the best time to foster entrepreneurial and change-agent skills. Developing skills that require more abstract, independent, logical and analytical thinking is critical for this age group to not only consider the rights and feelings of others in a more pragmatic way, but also to get a better sense of the world, and achieve both academic and business success.

Educators are given a great deal of opportunity and responsibility when it comes to the moral development and social responsibility of our youth. By engaging students in entrepreneurial skills, ICT and social responsibility, more students can become successful in school, move into STEM-intensive jobs and create the change-oriented businesses of tomorrow.

Mary de Wysocki has more than a decade of experience leading various Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and education initiatives for Cisco. She currently heads up Corporate Affairs Strategy, including new program development, Public Benefit Investment and the Cisco Foundation, and Research and Insights.


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