Emerging Social Innovators at Oak Knoll School

Nine Oak Knoll students in grades ten through twelve recently completed a 12-week Oak Knoll signature program entitled Social Innovators. The program is administered by the University of Pennsylvania and Schoolyard Ventures and takes place during the students’ own time and under their own initiatives. Each student researched, prototyped, tested, refined, and launched a venture of their own creation that sought to create value and have a positive impact on society. They will be receiving certificates in Social Innovation from the University of Pennsylvania.

Alex Huegel ’25, Aureliana Basso-Wiideman ’26, Ella Dunn ’26, Giorgia Carroll ’24, Grace Bienstock ’26, Heidi Pearce ’24, Maxi Aranowitz ’24, Melissa Dardanello ’25, and Nesa Shamdasani ’24 joined small online classes, participated in engaging interviews and case studies with young entrepreneurs, and received personalized one-on-one guidance and support from the program mentors as they developed their concepts.

For example, Aranowitz was concerned that busy female athletes with no access to a nutritionist might not be providing themselves with adequate sustenance and hydration. Through interviewing fellow athletes at Oak Knoll and working in collaboration with a nutritionist she custom designed easy to prepare “Minute Meals by Maxi” that will correctly fuel bodies for cardio-based sports efficiently and crafted just for a busy night after a practice.

Bienstock created an anonymous online support group for teens to talk openly about their mental health without feeling judgment from others. She worked with teens her age to have conversations about their mental health, and based on interviews, devised resources to help those in need.

Shamdasani worked to develop an experimental solution to bridge hygiene gaps between nonprofit organizations and the homeless community. Through interviews with non-profits, she created a set of questions for organizations to survey their general populations on different health care items, products, and conditions that would better meet their needs.

Basso-Wiideman had a personal interest in assisting those who suffer from panic attacks. By the end of the course, she came up with a set of bracelets with personalized messages that those predisposed to these attacks can use during onset.

At the conclusion of their 12-week endeavor, the facilitators asked our students to answer two prompts:

What are two or three insights that you have learned from interviews or problem-solving experiments with people in your market?
What has been a highlight for you about going through the innovation process (so far)?

Alex Huegel:

People are much more open to interviews than I expected. I also found that interviews help me find problems I didn’t know existed.
A highlight of this process for me has been working with people, especially my friends, because helping them has been very rewarding for me.

Aureliana Basso-Wiideman:

I learned that people sometimes get uncomfortable when talking about things related to their mental health, and that my market has a lot of patterns with how people feel.
I liked the interviewing, and brainstorming parts.

Ella Dunn

The people in my market find a lot of clothes that they like but don’t know where to buy them; they get a lot of junk emails from stores.
I learned skills that I will use later in my life; helped me better understand the innovation process.

Giorgia Carroll

More teens than we realize don’t know certain life skills that we need for the future. Teens are also willing to learn these skills for the future.
Talking to my fellow students and learning more about them and problems they want solved for them has been enjoyable for me.

Grace Bienstock

I’ve learned that a lot of teens don’t have a safe space to go to to talk about their mental health. They fear judgment from others and don’t feel comfortable going to their parents or friends, so they struggle alone and don’t reach out for the help they need. I also learned how burnt-out students get. A lot of students that I interviewed struggled with motivation problems, which led to procrastination, which eventually led to high levels of anxiety because they have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. From the program, the most important thing I learned is that not every solution will work and that’s OK. You have to keep trying and brainstorming.
I really enjoyed getting to work with a market I was passionate about and interviewing and connecting with people who were passionate about it as well.

Heidi Pearce

Resources are precious; it’s important to have an attainable market that you’re also interested in. A problem that seems unique is usually more common than you think.
I’ve enjoyed becoming comfortable with interviewing teachers, peers, and strangers and incorporating collected information into building a useful product.

Maxi Aranowitz

I have learned that during interviews, there are so many times you think you will just stick to a script, but find yourself asking questions and digging deeper with your own ideas and it develops the skill/ability to recognize problems and opportunities to pursue. Additionally, I have learned that not one solution will satisfy everybody and also that experiments are the best way to find a working solution. You shouldn’t be afraid of failure because when things don’t work out how you expected, you can learn so much.
The highlight for me has been working in a group with peers who can help with my project and also working with my advisor. All of this feedback gives me perspective on my solution and helps me further work through this process.

Melissa Dardanello

I have learned that a majority of the athletes at my school are not educated on the basic fundamentals of nutrition.
One highlight for me was getting to interview people who I would have never imagined I would ever talk to. Over winter break I got to interview someone who was featured in a book I read and it was so cool to be able to talk to them.

Nesa Shamdasani

Some insights I have learned through my experiences is that you might have to try a couple different people or ways to get the answers you are searching for. I have learned to be more direct and dig deeper into finding the root problem of the hygiene issues I hear about.
A highlight so far has definitely been putting myself out there a lot more whether it’s reaching out to school resources or to outside organizations, I’ve had to be a lot more open and give everything my best shot.

Congratulations to these hard-working and thoughtful entrepreneurs and we wish them all the best as they improve their communities and the world around them.