What I learned by teaching Fearless Experimentation

Last summer, I wrote about two of the patterns I’ve seen in my work teaching social entrepreneurship at a liberal arts college – (1) the research-to-practice gap and (2) students’ fear of failure. I proposed an approach that I named “Fearless Experimentation” to encourage students to apply their knowledge in real-world settings by forming and testing hypotheses. In doing so, they would inevitably realize that theory does not always translate to practice in exactly the ways they would expect, and that there is much to be learned from these departures or “failures.”

In the spirit of Fearless Experimentation, I developed five assignments and incorporated them into a year-long course on social change theory and practice

The first three Fearless Experimentation assignments were playful sprints – group activities that took place during a single class session. Students organized community games of hide and seek as a way of reducing stress among their peers, introduced themselves to members of the Chamber of Commerce in hopes of generating support or partnership for their social change projects, and conducted mini voter registration drives in the lead-up to the mid-term election. 

These assignments were intended to expose students to the basic habits of applying the scientific method to everyday challenges. They would learn and practice an approach to problem-solving based on Steve Blank’s lean startup methodology

  1. research a problem
  2. form a hypothesis (based on that research) about what product or service could address the problem
  3. design a super-simple version of that product or service, a.k.a. a prototype
  4. test the prototype in a real-world setting, collecting feedback about what works and what doesn’t
  5. analyze and reflect on the feedback
  6. use the analysis to build a better prototype 
  7. repeat steps 1-6

The idea is that, with practice and repetition, this problem-solving approach becomes second nature – it becomes a mindset, not just a skillset, for student changemakers.

The final two Fearless Experimentation assignments were longer-term experiential learning opportunities. Using the same deliberate process of research–>hypothesize–>test–>learn, students took on projects for two community partners: Amazi Foods and the Middlesex United Way. For Amazi, students were challenged to experiment with business growth strategies, specifically around customer development at colleges and universities. For the Middlesex United Way, students A/B tested social media campaigns of their own design, trying to determine what types of messages are most effective for generating new followers for the United Way. 

Creating and implementing these assignments was my own practice in Fearless Experimentation. All five were prototypes designed to test my beliefs about students’ desire to do active learning, students’ ability to overcome their fear of making mistakes, and the potential for hands-on projects to generate powerful learning outcomes. Here are some things I learned in the process:

  • The scale and scope of each assignment is key. Each needs to be manageable for students within the time allotted but robust enough for them to learn. 
  • Asking students to do unpaid labor for a company has to be framed right. I navigated this delicately in conversations with Fellows during the assignment periods, and ultimately it worked out ok. 
  • I need to be even more careful about the way I structure partnerships with alumni and with for-profit or nonprofit businesses. I always strive for reciprocity (i.e. both the students and the partner benefit), but that is a hard balance to find.

Ultimately, the Fearless Experimentation assignments did contribute to learning outcomes for the students. In general, they began to embrace failure “as a marker of moving forward” and to understand that prototyping can “make all the difference” in bringing their ideas to life. And specifically, they drew conclusions about business growth strategies for Amazi and communications strategies for the Middlesex United Way.

For Amazi, their reports included these findings:

  • Partnering with like-minded student groups (such as a vegan club) is a promising way to get customer feedback but not a reliable long-term business partnership. 
  • Due to its alignment with Christian values, Amazi could be marketed with customized messaging to Christian colleges and universities.
  • Offering samples at big college events (rather than just a regular day at a campus center, for example) could have a strong ROI.

And for the Middlesex United Way:

  • From these studies, we have concluded that it is of the utmost importance to show positive emotion and contribution. When people look happy in the ads, consumers and targeted sectors will be happy!
  • When our advertisement featured a middle-aged women, the audience that reacted most frequently to the ad were middle-aged women. In our second trial of split test, we featured an ad with a young man and received all of our leads from males.
  • This experiment really made me more conscious and aware of ads when I see them on my timeline. I’ve begun to see myself think deeply about the message an ad is trying to convey and the tactics used to go about approaching it. Reflecting back on the experience, I believe what Middlesex United Way should do is post more content portraying how their work is benefiting the community instead of rather showing what they are doing.

During the 2019/2020 academic year, I will build on last year’s Fearless Experiments. I will continue to seek bridges across the research-to-practice gap. And I will do my best to help students understand that small trials can turn “failure” into learning.


Makaela Kingsley is director of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. You can read her thoughts on EntrepreneurshipNetworking, and Personal Branding on this blog.