In a complex of light-filled meeting rooms and workshops known as the Hive, teams of consultants dream up life-improving projects. A new pocket park next to a Whole Foods on the Brookhaven/Chamblee border was one of their successes; a teen driving program for Porsche Cars North America was another.

The Hive would look at home in any shimmering corporate tower downtown, but it’s actually the former library at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Sandy Springs. And those consultants—they’re Upper School students earning their “Innovation Diploma.”

MVIFI Executive Director Bo Adams and Innovation Diploma program instructor Meghan Cureton inside “the Hive.” (John Ruch)

The work is part of a school within the school called the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI), which aims to bring the collaborative, problem-solving side of business start-up culture into education.

“It’s basically a little bit like having a business school inside Mount Vernon,” said MVIFI Executive Director Bo Adams, while explaining it’s also a lot more than that. He likens the program to a corporate research and development department.

“All other industries that are serious about innovation have R&D labs,” Adams said. “So we wanted to be that thing, to be the R&D lab for pre-K to 12 education.”

Mount Vernon’s motto calls for the pursuit of “inquiry, innovation and impact,” and MVIFI aims to follow suit by researching and developing solutions to real-world challenges.

The Innovation Diploma program, through which students act as consultants to outside groups seeking advice, is one way MVIFI teaches real-world skills, too. It’s a type of honors program where students in grades 9 through 12 earn a second “iDiploma” alongside the standard version.

Meghan Cureton, the Innovation Diploma program leader, says it’s a modern idea that fulfills an age-old educational purpose.

“We need to create problems for [students] to solve, because that’s what school’s about,” Cureton said.

“It’s kind of like Mount Vernon on steroids,” said Adams. “It’s definitely not the high school experience I had.”

However, MVIFI doesn’t innovate only inside a classroom. One of MVIFI’s first programs after its 2010 founding was the now annual Fuse Conference, where leaders of nonprofits and similar organizations gather to collaborate on challenges of their own. And MVIFI also consults with other schools about starting similar programs.

‘Design thinking’

Like many start-up companies, MVIFI has its own buzzwords to describe its mission in catchy ways. The concept that ties all of its work together is “design thinking.”

Jeff Garrison of S.J. Collins Enterprises works with Innovation Diploma students on plans for a pocket park next to a new Whole Foods. (Special)

The first part is easy to understand. “We design programs and products,” Adams says, like the Porsche driving program or the Whole Foods park.

The “thinking” part is the twist. “It’s the difference between making a shiny object and designing with users’ needs in mind,” said Adams.

That means students and staff approach problems with a concept that is customized through feedback, questioning and testing – “human-centered design” done with “empathy and experiments,” as Adams puts it. Project ideas can come from anywhere; as Adams and Cureton spoke on a recent afternoon in the Hive, colleagues were in another room consulting with representatives from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

In short, MVIFI staff and students act like professional consultants. That’s the concept of the Innovation Diploma program, where the projects students take on are called “design briefs” and the organizations they serve are “clients.”

Like the open-format, glass-walled rooms of the Hive, the Innovation Diploma is a flexible program that relies heavily on the students’ own interests and input. Students get assessments from staff, peers and even themselves, but their projects are not graded. They can move between different project teams, contributing to one or several.

“If students are motivated by the work they’re doing, they don’t need the external motivation of grades,” Adams said. And he notes that adults don’t get grades in what the Innovation Diploma program is planned to resemble: the workplace.

Some of that work, such as the pocket park designed for developer S.J. Collins, can have a professional quality – and raises the question of whether the Innovation Diploma program might go pro, too.

“The plans they put together are the exact plans [the developers] put into place,” Cureton said of that park project.

On that project and the program for Porsche, Adams said, the team also created an invoice showing the actual work and a sample bill, and asked the clients whether they would have been willing to pay a similar amount to a professional firm. Adams said the response was positive, and that has MVIFI considering ways to make money out of its programs.

Could that mean paying the students as well? “We don’t know the answer to that,” he said.

Students tackle traffic

The best way to explain the Innovation Diploma program is to follow one of its projects. One of the mostly widely discussed is an ongoing attempt to reduce Mount Vernon’s own school traffic, which adds to the jams on Mount Vernon Highway.

Ideas for projects can come from anywhere. In this case, the work began in 2016 with a parent’s conversation with Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul. The mayor suggested the students find a way to accomplish the city’s aim of reducing commuter traffic by 10 percent – a goal that city-hired professional consultants previously had said would have a big impact on local roads.

Cureton said that vetting projects for feasibility is key, as clients can both underestimate or overestimate student abilities. In this case, she said, she knew immediately that coping with an entire city’s traffic issues was beyond the capability of a student team. But she also didn’t dictate what a classroom-sized version of the project might be.

“We ended up letting them wrestle with that as a big question,” Cureton said.

The students decided to tackle a 10 percent reduction in the school’s own traffic. With the city as “client,” the students observed school traffic; made a “heat map” of where students live by ZIP code, to map traffic patterns; interviewed focus groups of students and parents about commuting experiences; and connected with experts at the state’s Georgia Commute Options program. Along the way, they met with city officials, including Community Relations Manager Dan Coffer and transportation planner Kristen Westcott.

It was more work than one school year could handle, and actual programs – likely centered on carpooling – are left to this year’s class. But the students got valuable experience consulting with a municipal government, and school traffic was put on the political agenda, with Paul describing the project as a possible pilot program for other schools. And citing a traffic-reduction effort didn’t hurt Mount Vernon’s own zoning approval request earlier this year for future campus expansion master plans.

Innovation Diploma graduate Anya Smith. (Special)

“The kids did a great job,” said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun. “Our goal at the outset was to work with the teacher to develop a program that could provide real-life application, not just schoolwork. The class was very impressive.”

Anya Smith was one of the students. She has since graduated and entered Georgia Tech.

“Trying to decrease traffic is no small, easy task, but luckily age doesn’t set boundaries for creativity and innovation,” Smith said in a written statement. “I think it’s essential to have students working on these types of problems because it’s a mutually beneficial situation: students have a greater purpose behind their learning, which is proven to increase motivation and productivity, and the solutions designed are intended to help the greater community.”

Dr. Brett Jacobsen, Mount Vernon’s head of school, said such efforts in the Innovation Diploma program underscore the school’s mission.

“One of Mount Vernon’s design drivers is, ‘How might we make school life more reflective of real life?’” he said, adding, “It is powerful when students become engaged in civic issues we all face on a daily basis and actually make an impact.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.