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In this episode, Doris speaks with Nicholas Timms from Hillfield Strathallan College. He shares the story of how transforming a traditional small business course grew into a student-run Design Studio, with high school students marketing and creating solutions for local businesses.
Do School Better: A Podcast for People Who Want to Transform Education
Doris: Hello Nick.
Nick: Hi Doris, how are you?
Doris: I am wonderful. I’m so excited to talk to you.
Nick: Yeah, I’m really excited to talk to you too.
Doris: Yeah. And Nick, you came to the workshop three summers ago.
Nick: That’s right.
Doris: And I would love for you to start by telling our listeners about yourself, who you are, what you do, where you’re doing it, and why you came to the workshop, and you know, start with that.
Nick: All right. Well, I am a second career teacher. I came to teaching after 12 years in the advertising industry. I originally trained as a graphic designer and worked in a variety of different areas of the industry. And my mid-30s, I just decided I need a change and I had always wanted to be in education. And you know, it took some shifts in my mid-30s that really sort of lit a fire under me to start that change. I went back to school for teaching, and just by chance, I was hired on a short-term contract at a school, an PK-12 independent school in Hamilton, Ontario called Hillfield Strathallan College. And when I started, one of my colleagues said to me, you know, “If you want this to be full time, just make it full time.” And I spent that first year just seeing everything that was available at the school and realizing that it was the kind of place that if you wanted to try something, you could and they’d support you in that.
So in my first year, I took a group of students to Tanzania and we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and we worked at a school, and I teach Communications Technology so we’re looking at things with technology, graphic design, and web design. So it just seemed like a really good fit for me to be here, and soon after that I was hired full time, and a few years ago, one of the courses that I was asked to teach was Small Business Management. Now, I had worked independently on contract work as a designer, so I kind of, “Maybe I can do this.” And the first year, I jumped in and I was following sort of the curriculum that was set by the previous teacher, and that it was a great curriculum but it wasn’t totally clicking with my approach and it was at that time that my colleague and the Director of Academics, Brenda Zwolak sort of tapped me on the shoulder and showed me your workshop and said, “Let’s go.”
So we registered, bought our plane tickets and we went south of the border to attend.
Doris: Yeah, that’s absolutely wonderful. And you came out of the workshop, and what’d you do with what you got there?
Nick: So, full disclosure, I was exhausted, because in the Canadian system we’re about three weeks behind you so we were still in the middle of exams, and I flew down and I remember thinking, “Do I have the energy for this right now?” And you know, went through the workshop, sat with you, sat with Alison, looked at what I could do and how I could rebuild, not really rebuild because it was a great program, but how I could adapt to it and change it. And you know, I had my booklet from you and I had all of my notes, and the one thing that really sort of stayed with me, one of your parting comments was, “Just pick one viable thing, one thing that you know that you can do.”
And so that’s what I did. I sort of looked at what we had done in the course. I used a lot of your resources and I revamped the course for the next year. So going into the next year, I had two different classes with two very different groups of students, and realized that I kinda had to teach two different courses that year just to appeal to all of their senses.
Doris: Yeah, because it’s about them and not about us, right?
Nick: Right, yeah, for sure.
Doris: You know, I know it’s been a while, even that has been a while, but how did it go, how was it for the students, how was it for you. What happened?
Nick: So the first year, it was sort of the first year in teaching any course. I changed it every day. So I was looking at different competitions that were going on within the community. I was going down to our university, to their innovation hub and listening to university students talk about businesses they’ve started or how they’ve launched ideas. I took some of my students down to see them talk, or sent them down to see them talk. So there was a lot of that but there was a lot of just sort of eye-opening experiences. One of them that, you know, struck me, I was in Buffalo, which is just about an hour south of here, and there was a skin cream that I saw in the store and on the back, it said, “Created by Zandra; a teenage girl and CEO.”
So we looked up this product and here is this, you know, 14, 15-year old girl from Buffalo who’s created this amazing skin care product line but all of the proceeds are going towards keeping girls in school and encouraging them into post-secondary education. So a lot of the course at the beginning of the year just became highlighting these points and sort of case studies. Why was this product successful? What was the market? What was the problem that they were trying to solve?
So using approaches like the BMC, the Business Model Canvas, students were coming back and pitching these ideas as if they were the entrepreneurs.
Doris: Oh, that’s fantastic. So then what? What did you…you know, talk about what this kind of education has been like for your students, what’s come out of this for them, the first year since then, what are you finding?
Nick: I’m really finding they’re really digging deep into their sort of creative mindset. So you know, much like we talked about in the workshop, I would have local entrepreneurs come in and pitch their problem. So one was a man who has a solar energy business and he wanted to reach a bigger market to encourage people to buy in to solar power. Another was a local artist who, you know, in the final 10 years of his career really wanted to make an impact and get into social media and market this product, but he didn’t know how to do it.
So that was great to see the professional side come in, seeing students interviewing them, and then working in groups to deliver, to deliver ideas. And to see the really creative ideas that came out, ideas that I never would have thought of. And that’s the great part. Some of the ideas that they came up with, I don’t know how they came up with them.
Doris: Yeah, well, they did a lot of research also, probably.
Nick: Exactly. A lot of market research, digging deeper. I feel like I said “dig deeper” probably 60 times in a week, but you know, then as we worked through the year, it was on them to come up with their own project. So our school mascot is the Trojan, so we came up with this concept of the Trojan trials and it’s sort of like a shark tank approach where they come up with a concept for their business and they have to make it happen. They then pitch to a panel of judges from industry.
Nick: And it’s a full day event, we record it, there are prizes and awards, prizes for, you know, best idea, best presentation, best pitch, most viable product. And what was great out of that, especially the last year was to see the number of students who actually turn their business into reality.
Doris: Oh, that’s interesting.
Nick: And we had other groups who didn’t implement the business, but really came up with some neat ideas.
Doris: Yeah that’s what happens, right? And Nick, I want to ask two questions, I found that while I found programs like that now increasingly all over the place where high school students, even middle school students are creating their own business ideas and pitching to shark tank type panels. I, in my experience, having had the students work on solving problems of other businesses on teams and learning foundational skills, how to do good research, how to creatively problem solve with some parameters and some… That having students do work in problem solving prior to that is for me an essential. That the quality of what they do when they create their own businesses, to solve their own problems, is entirely different if they have done all this stuff beforehand. Do you find that as well?
Nick: Absolutely. When I look back at some of the problems that came to us, they weren’t, you know, always glamorous problems that teenagers wanted to jump into. They were solar energy and a local ceramic artist, and some of the kids haven’t thought of…you know, keen on ceramic artists or potter and all in their like, so a lot of it was sort of getting past that. It’s not about the product, it’s about the problem and learning about the industry, learning about who that target market is. And so it’s all that work ahead of time to get into the mindset of that. Or when we were looking at solar energy, looking at how much can one household produce with solar panels and how much is the government going to subsidize them if they invest $40,000 to put these solar panels on the roof. And what’s the profit factor in that, and how do they figure all of that out?
And when they would ask me that, that is when I would say, “I don’t know how. That’s what you have to go and figure out.” So as a teacher, it was great. I could just say, “You go do it. I don’t know.”
Doris: I don’t know. And I think not having any answer in the back of the book forces them to focus on, I don’t think it, I believe it that…and I’ve seen it, it forces them to focus on the process. Instead of where can I find the answer to the question and give it back to the teacher, they have to…it’s an entirely different type of learning because they’re learning by doing and they’re doing it on a team, so they have to really very intentionally and thoughtfully craft process. And that for me, is the strategic part of all this. And having done it with problems you give them that are of someone else, you know, whether it’s solar panel company or ceramics or a new water filter design, they learn a lot of foundational skills by doing that, that I think they bring in to this shark tank kind of thing and it becomes an entirely different thing than what I see when I go around the country and I see the kind of, “Oh, let’s do a startup weekend with a shark tank,” which…and I’m not disparaging those. Those are fun things and they’re great but we’re talking about entrepreneurship education as an academic course, to me makes sense because it’s about skill building in decidedly academic things and it’s not really about the money or even business actually.
Nick: Yeah, I find it at schools too, a lot of it is not about the mark. At the beginning of the year was, “How am I going to be marked on this?” And I would just say, “Well, we’ll figure that out. We’ll get to that.” And I had to be reminded, “We need marks.” And I would, you know, we would do midpoint check-ins and presentations and those sorts of things, but the mark wasn’t the focus here. What was great was when that client came back and they pitched their idea, and the client jumped on board with something. And so I hadn’t thought of that and there’s no mark for that. That is a connection that was made and the sharing of ideas. So yeah, I could give you an A-plus or whatever might fit that, but it’s not about that.
And I think they see that now, so students that I taught last year who I’ve passed in the hallway and they say, “Oh, I just read this,” or, “I saw this idea and I thought it was what we learned in the class.” Or, “This is empathy” or this…you know, those are the great moments where I don’t even remember what a mark was and it doesn’t matter because, you know, people don’t really remember their mark a year down the road or when they’re coming back, remembering things we learned, that’s where I would think, “This is what we’re doing here, it’s great.”
Doris: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing and I think the interesting thing about what you just said is as teachers, it’s a very common thing for a teacher teaching any course to talk to students about, “Look, don’t worry so much about the grade or the mark. You worry about the learning and the growth.” The difference in this case is it’s not even so much what you say that you say it’s not about the mark. It’s that they get to a point in the class…and the reason, at the beginning, you just say, “Oh wait, we’ll figure it out later” is you know that when they get engaged, when they realize, “Wow, this is about my solving a real problem for someone out there.” Then that becomes where they get their motivation and their drive, and then their fulfillment for having done a good job afterwards.
Nick: Yeah. I completely agree.
Doris: Yeah, it’s really interesting. And then the other thing I was going to ask you about in terms of these businesses that the students themselves are creating is what do you find with the students who move on and actually continue with the business? Do you find entire teams doing that or just one student here, one student there? I just think that’s interesting because I have found in my own entrepreneurship courses that increasingly they develop businesses that are really viable and have legs but very few of them move on to create them because things like going to college and other things seem to draw them instead.
Nick: Yeah, I look back at the first year after taking the course to the second year and the ideas that came out of it. What I learned from the first year is what you just said. Come up with something that you can actually do. So the first year we had some amazing ideas that couldn’t necessarily be pulled off in the time that we had, or what we had to work with.
In the second year, we talked about those ideas and how we could actually make them happen. So when I think back to four specifically, one of them, a group of students did something that was very feasible to do within the school. They put together amazing presentations. They went to school fairs and pitched their idea to our parent community to get feedback. They were sort of like a Makerspace 3D modeling type of business.
Another one was just a simple app that would take them out of school and into universities, and it was helping kids to shop for themselves and cook for themselves. And then the group that actually got up and running, you know, easily turned it into a summer job. So while some of them didn’t bring them to life, it sparked sort of an entrepreneurial mindset within them where they’re now thinking, “Oh, when I go to school, I want to take this course but I’m looking at this school because they also have an entrepreneurial program,” or, “They have an innovation hub where I can work and bring ideas, I will, you know, bring them to life.”
So even for the students who maybe when they go into university, they’re not looking at that, they’re looking at ways to include that into their education.
Doris: So Nick, it’s one thing to talk about doing these as weekend workshops or summer camp programs, but why would some…a class like this fit, as in for academic credit class in school. What are your thoughts about that? Are the students learning things that you could qualify as academic in this class?
Nick: Absolutely, they are. I mean, I think I look back…well, I look at our strategic plan for our school and out of the pillars that have come forward, one of them is entrepreneurial spirit. And you know, looking at that, what is that term and we work to define that and everyone can have their own definition. But you know, part of it is the idea that kids are going to school for jobs that don’t exist yet, or the market has changed and it’s so important to be able to go out and come up with that job or come up with that idea. So just having those skills to me are just as important as any other skill that we’re learning in school.
For kids who came to the course because, “Oh, I needed to fill a spot in my time table.” They said, “Okay, well, if that’s your reason, that’s great. But I want you to leave this class with the ability to stand up in front of 200 people and pitch an awesome idea in 2 minutes or less, and do it with confidence, and strategically, and really wow them,” because that’s something that you could take into any job, into any industry anywhere in life.
Doris: Yeah, I was just going to say what you just described. Anybody who’s been out of school for five minutes knows that if somebody can do that, the skills required to be able to do that well and the confidence and the mindset and everything else are much more the qualities that determine someone’s success in life or productivity, then one’s ability to regurgitate facts even assuming you can remember them a year later after you’ve memorized, right? So Nick, you give a great answer, you’re the teacher of the class. How is this accepted as an academic course at your school and in your school community?
Nick: I think people are looking at it sort of from that same lens. They’re looking at it come forward in their class. it’s making that sort of crossover into another class where I can, “Here are the materials, if you want me to show you what to do, but the kids know how to do it, they’ll show you.”
So it’s seeing or having my colleagues see this as a really viable path and that they’re bringing skills into their other courses. So I think it’s something that just naturally contributes to all of the other classes in an academic setting.
Doris: Yeah, and I mean, in the three years since, you know, you came to the second workshop I ever did and what’s been really interesting since then is to see that of the hundreds of people that I’ve had the luck to work with, fewer than a third of them are teaching entrepreneurship classes. I mean, they’re teaching all the…what people consider core subjects and interdisciplinary courses and all kinds of things.
Nick: Right. Well, and what I teach…so I taught the Small Business Course for a number of years. This year, a new teacher is teaching it with the same setup, and it’s great to see what new eyes bring in to something, right? “What did I overlook? What didn’t I cover? What could I have done better?” And what’s exciting for me as a teacher is working in a school that embraces that idea to do something different or, you know, create a new challenge, and not long after the course, I think it was the January after the course, the Head of our college sent out a blanket email to all staff and students that said, “If you could do anything in this school, the sky’s the limit, money’s not an issue, what would it be?” And so a colleague and I who had both worked in the advertising and design industry before teaching, instantly said, “Oh, we would run a studio. We’d run a marketing studio within the school.” So you know, we pitched our proposal and then we found out about this fund, so there’s a great fund at our school called the David Tutty Joy and Innovation Fund, and it was named for a parent who had unfortunately passed away and a fund had been started in his name to encourage anyone to come up with something new.
So we pitched this idea and we were given the go ahead, and they funded the renovation of a studio space, and you know, within six months, we had hired six students and two accounting students to manage our books, and six student designers. And we run it in the classroom setting, we follow the curriculum, but we don’t know what it’s going to be until we get a client in. So you know, we advertise…
Doris: It’s awesome. So they work on solving a client’s problem?
Nick: Right. So they don’t work on anything that our classes are working on. So the client will come in, “I’m a doctor, and I need a new website for my practice.” Or, “I’m starting up a new practice and I need help. How do I develop a brand?” So the students run the meetings, they ask the questions, they work on things like, you know, as simple as professionalism, greeting them at the door, the handshake, that first point of contact, getting the information, working with the accounting students to quote on the job. The accounting students in the background have to figure out, you know, at the end of the job, was this profitable for us? What’s the profit factor? Did we quote properly? Did we need to revamp that? But the great thing on it or about it is the student designers will work on the design and as a teacher in the classroom setting, you can give your feedback and then the project’s over.
But here, the client comes in and says across the board, “I don’t like any of the designs. I need something new.” It builds up that resilience in the kids. So they have to start over whether they like it or not and they might present an idea that they love but it’s not a fit for the client and in this case, you know, the client wants what they want. So it’s teaching that resiliency, developing their creativity further, and also really listening to somebody’s needs, getting out of your own mindset and figuring out what they want.
Doris: That’s fantastic and that’s amazing. And the other thing that it is, is every client that comes in probably is offering up something new that they don’t know, the students aren’t familiar with, so they have to learn because of the need to learn. So they’re probably learning how to learn some really hard stuff.
Nick: And it goes the same for Kristy Faggion, who was my colleague who I run this with. It’s the same for us. So you know, we think, “Oh, we can figure this out. We’ll figure out how to do it.” And it’s not always a success. We’ve had some areas, you know, where we haven’t succeeded and we’ve learned from it.
Doris: That’s fantastic.
Nick: We’re in our second year now, so some of our designers have graduated and gone on to school, and some of them have gone on to school in a related field. And then we have new designers coming in, the senior designers mentor the juniors. The senior accountant mentors the junior accountant, and we just sort of get to oversee it as it unfolds, which is really exciting and it’s also just really amazing to see the kids pitch to people from, you know, outside of the school to do something different. And you know, after school hours, they’re happy because they get a paycheck.
Doris: That’s awesome. I love this. I love hearing all the things you’ve built here, but what I also…what this also says…so one thing that’s exciting about this is you as a teacher, as a designer, as a learner yourself, it’s really inspiring. But the other thing that’s really exciting to me is that you’re telling the story that is the…the sort of poster child for the need to have school leaders who are willing to let teachers experiment and innovate. And you know, the reason I wanted to find an independent school myself seven years ago is not because they’re better but I wanted to find one that would allow experimentation where I could use it as a lab. You’re using your school as a laboratory, Nick, and it’s really, really inspiring.
Nick: Yeah. And there are those moments where we sit here and think, “Oh my gosh, what have we done?” And one thing I should have mentioned today in my grade nine class, this is Communications Technology so we’re working on vector design. So students are drawing vector portraits either of themselves or their dog or a celebrity, and a grade nine student is doing an amazing job, and yesterday she came up to me and she said, “You know, I showed my mom and I was just hired to do six vector portraits at her office of the employees for their website. What should I charge for this?”
So we had this great talk about what is your work worth, and all these things. And then I thought, “We haven’t even finished the project yet, then already she’s got a job to design six of these…”
Doris: Isn’t that something?
Nick: “…of these portraits and she’s 14.”
Doris: And it isn’t about the money, it’s about the empowerment that comes and the confidence that comes from knowing that you’re able to do something that someone else thinks has value and that you’ve created while you’re still in school.
Nick: Doris, we had one student who has now graduated who was a senior designer last year, and he…you know, they get a paycheck in our design studio for any work that’s not done during the school day. So they can sign out the laptop if they have to meet that Monday deadline. They log those hours, they get a paycheck. And when he went to India to visit his family, he told me that, you know, he had told his grandmother when he gets his first paycheck, you know, when he was all grown up, he would give to her. And he got his paycheck from here and when he went to visit her in India, he gave her that first paycheck, and I thought, “What a neat experience that was in the first…” And I secretly went into my office and, you know, wiped a little tear from my eye thinking, “You’re so grown up already,” so.
Doris: Yeah, his first paycheck, he didn’t have to wait until he was 24.
Nick: Yeah. And it was something that he created for himself. And then, you know, one of the greatest things is seeing how wonderful the clients are with students. And also, hearing from clients afterwards saying…you know, the number of times we’ll hear them say, “I wish we had this when I was in school.” And I think that’s how education is changing, right? We have to adapt with these things and even if, you know, this is a design thing that we’re doing, but if the student’s going in to medical school from here, they’re still taking all of those components that they learned and adapting them to meeting people, talking to people, problem solving.
Doris: Well, yes, and what you’re describing is design writ large. It is design in the broadest sense, which encompasses problem solving. It encompasses empathy, all those things you talked about. And I agree with you, what’s happening in education is we’re seeing people like yourself creating entirely different models of what school can be and for the kind of learning to happen that people living today and tomorrow need, we have to involve members of the community outside the school walls. We have to. And they want to be. That is always the single thing educators on training are most worried about until they’ve tried it. And the minute you ask somebody, “Hey, I’m teaching a high school class,” whether it’s a history class or a design class or an entrepreneurship class, and, “Can you come in and be a judge for some presentations?” Or, “Can you be a mentor?” That it is never hard to get people to participate, do you agree with that?
Nick: I completely agree, and I worried about that too at your course thinking, “Who am I going to get?” Really picturing my neighborhood and picturing the businesses, and it all just came out through conversation; standing, you know, paying for an object. “Where did you find…” you know, a conversation comes up, “Where do you teach?” And sort of the aha light comes on. And then even at our school, and this is what I would recommend to other schools, our alumni manager has become my best friend through this process. So you know, I want a judge who is in…I need someone from the tech industry or somebody who knows something about app development and into the database, and then I have three people lined up. So it’s also a great way to reengage people into your schools who might have graduated, even students who are just finishing their first year of university.
Doris: Yeah. And I was just talking to a public school teacher here I work with, who was very worried about the same thing when she went through the training. And literally, what she did is she asked one of the student’s parents she knows who works for an insurance company, and that’s all she had to do, and that person within, I think she said two days, came back with somebody who said they’d love to help out. This was in middle school, a history teacher, love to help out, we’ll get somebody who knows…you know, who does work with immigrants in this community, and they’ll come be your judge. It’s like the easiest thing, even things specific like that.
Well, Nick, I’m blown away by the wonderful things you’ve done in these three years, and yet, I’m not surprised having seen you in the workshop. And I can only imagine what you will have built three years from now. You’re having a blast, huh?
Nick: Yeah. And if you are ever, you know, heading up this way, I’d love you to take you through DesignWerx, our studio, I don’t think I mentioned the name, but I’ll introduce you to some of the student designers and accountants who are sort of running the show here and letting you see them pitch and do their thing, so.
Doris: I’m going to absolutely take you up on it. We’re going to be in your neighborhood soon and I will take you up on it.
Doris: All right. Nick, thank you so much.
Nick: All right, thanks so much, Doris.