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One day to reimagine everything

MECA Challenge
Students participate in the MECA Challenge, Oct. 30, Kansas City, Missouri.

Students from four high schools came together to problem solve, collaborate, and flex an entrepreneurial mindset. The challenge before them? How to reimagine a school of the future. That’s meta.

Tammy Buckner had some last-minute advice for her team of high school students as they prepared to pitch their vision of a school of the future. Her group was about to compete against other teams in a problem-solving competition known as the MECA Challenge.

Don’t just talk about getting into college. Talk about contributing to the workforce, Buckner urged. She reminded students that many of them would not work in a traditional workplace, but as entrepreneurs in a fast-changing society.

“I’m a contractor. That’s where the way of life is going,” said Buckner, founder of Techquity Digital, which helps businesses and entrepreneurs ramp up their digital strategies.

At the end of a full day, Buckner said she was confident she’d been working with the entrepreneurs of the future. “They have the mindset,” she said. “They have such great ethics, and they are strong leaders.”

Space to reimagine the future

MECA Challenges have been taking place in and around Kansas City, Missouri, since 2015, when they were conceived by the Kansas City Startup Foundation, along with partners in industry and education. The name, MECA, is short for “Most Entrepreneurial Community in America.”

If you can’t guarantee every student a work-based experience, at least give them an entrepreneurial mindset.
— Brad MacLaughlin, MECA Challenge mentor

“We create some space and time for students to tackle a real-world problem,” said Katie Kimbrell, director of education for the Startup Foundation. “Often schools right now are not spaces where that is happening. It’s a great opportunity to connect with the community.”

This school year, the Startup Foundation is sponsoring eight city-wide challenges, including the one that took place Oct. 30 in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Kansas City Public Television (KCPT). About 100 students from four high schools tackled a question dear to the hearts of students as well as the sponsors: How might we reimagine and redesign a school of the future?

Students from Alta Vista, Basehor-Linwood, Park Hill, and Park Hill South high schools formed teams with students from the other schools. They introduced themselves and, with the encouragement of Buckner and other mentors, spent the day collaborating to define problems, brainstorm solutions, and prepare pitches for judges.

Training ground for problem solvers

Most teams agreed that schools today too frequently operate on a one-size-fits-all model that doesn’t meet the needs of individual students. Among other things, they proposed redesigning classrooms into co-working spaces, offering flexible class hours, and placing more emphasis on the mental and physical health of students.

Jimena Davila, an Alta Vista student, said the experience taught her that students, working together, were capable of solving problems.

“We can look for solutions to these major problems we have in our world,” she said. “We should be able to find out what the problem is and find a solution. This really inspired me.”

Her teammate, Laylani Gonzales, from Park Hill High School, ticked off some of the concepts she learned from the day’s competition: “Networking, always being positive, looking at the end goal.”

MECA Challenge

Students participate in the MECA Challenge, Oct. 30.

Many praise the mentors assigned to their teams – usually entrepreneurs or people who work with entrepreneurs.

“This gives me the opportunity to have some impact on future generations,” said Davin Gordon, business development officer at AltCap, a community development financial institution that assists non-traditional businesses and underserved neighborhoods.

Educators trying to create that impact daily, said translating the MECA experience to their classrooms isn’t easy. “You can have the most amazing project-based learning experience at school – and we’re trying to do more of those – but at the end of the day, there’s something about being in a different space and interacting with different adults as mentors,” said Greg Owsley, STEAM director at Rockhurst High School.

Gordon sees the MECA Challenge as a training ground for risk takers and problem solvers – attributes he looks for in his work. He described the day’s activities as an exercise in design thinking, essentially getting creative ideas out on the table.

Learning – and solving – together

Design thinking processes might not be the norm in classrooms, but educators and mentors said students adapt to it quickly. Buckner praised her students for their ability to develop a proposal, complete with a Powerpoint presentation, in just a few hours, and then to deliver it in front of judges and their peers.

“They teach me things about how to be an entrepreneur, because they jump right in,” she said.

It is the intense collaboration, the fast-paced critical thinking, that allows students to operate with a community-focused, entrepreneurial mindset that goes well beyond creating a presentation.

Brad MacLaughlin, a veteran educator and entrepreneur who often mentors MECA teams, said the challenges create exactly the kind of experiential learning experience that schools should be offering.

“We didn’t change the world, but we gave kids an opportunity where they were with strangers, they were given a problem, they collaborated and created a simulated solution,” he said. “If you can’t guarantee every student a work-based experience, at least give them an entrepreneurial mindset so that they learn to adapt what they do know to new opportunities.”