7 tips for Coaching Student Innovation from Harvard’s Operation Impact

The mission of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) is to catalyze innovation and excellence in learning and teaching at Harvard. HILT’s Operation Impact empowers students to become agents of change in the field of education, by providing students with resources, funding, and connections. Operation Impact’s student teams have built a runway for their innovative ideas to take off and have a measurable impact on learners of all ages globally. This blog post was created by the 2019/2020 Operation Impact Fellows of Harvard University.

During 2019-20, students of all ages throughout North America have dived head-first into hands-on innovation. In partnership with the Conrad Challenge, and coached by our Operation Impact Fellows at Harvard University, 88 teams of 13- to 18-year-olds have devoted extraordinary energy to “Transforming Education through Technology,” the competition category sponsored by SMART Technologies. Meanwhile, the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) has wrapped up its year-long Operation Impact, to encourage students to take action on their ideas to improve education.

As the teams’ coaches, we’ve been impressed by the curiosity, enthusiasm, and excitement that SMART’s investment has sparked. It’s helped us craft tips on what makes student innovation competitions successful, and what role teachers and mentors can best play in the students’ coaching journey.


  1. Tap into the students’ expertise. We coached high school-age entrepreneurs who had creative ideas, a passion for making a difference, and impressive machine learning and modeling skills. Prepare to be impressed by teams who have more technical facility than you do.


  1. Give them narrative, not just structure. Articulate a clear sequence of stages, in both the competition and the coaching path. Students respond better to progressive feedback than episodic check-ins.


  1. Focus on the problem. Like many real-world entrepreneurs, student teams often fall into the trap of starting with a technology and then looked for ways to apply it – the hammer hunting for a nail. Encourage them to start by asking “who has what problem?”, and only then to ideate.


  1. Sharpen that focus. Even teams that clearly define can struggle to refine. In our experience, the teams that gained traction and built a real execution strategy were those that tackled smaller, better-articulated problems for specific users.


  1. Leverage networks. No idea ever gets past the concept stage until it’s been shown to users. We encouraged our students to survey, test, and validate their ideas with extended contacts and connections, such as SMART’s network of teachers.


  1. Don’t force-fit. It’s easy to over-complicate the innovation process, particularly when students are involved. Resist the temptation to overwhelm them with tools and resources they don’t need.


  1. Build excitement through community. Student teams are hungry for contact. Set up launch meetings, showcases, and crowd events that get people meeting and bonding, much like our Operation Impact kickoff last fall.


One final suggestion: coach more teams, not fewer. Thanks to SMART’s support, we were able to increase the number of teams per Fellow – and like it. Mentoring is electrifying, generating ideas from one team that you can share with the next. So jump into coaching with both feet. Your guidance could make all the difference to a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs worldwide.


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