Never underestimate the power of a high school student.
When David DiPietro came back to join the Research & Innovation (R&I) team as the Manager of Business Development in the fall of 2022, the idea of a new pilot program to engage industry partners and students – both high school and college – came to life.
The Innovation Mentorship Program is a way to foster a culture of innovation at the secondary school level. R&I partners Niagara College (NC) classes with a similar high-school level class and runs the projects side by side with the same industry partner. The NC students get the opportunity to mentor the high-school students, helping them grow their leadership skills. The goal of the program is to expose high-school students to college-level experiential learning, while also getting them familiar with the overall college atmosphere, ways of learning, and more.
For the pilot, R&I partnered with teacher David Vandermolen, from the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN), who teaches classes in the business curriculum, to apply the course-based research model within a Grade 11 marketing course, as many students are starting to think about their post-secondary decisions around that time. From NC, Robert Madronic, PhD, professor in the School of Business and Management, offered his students in the course called Entrepreneurship and Small Business the opportunity to mentor the Grade 11 students.
For the industry partner involved in the program, they benefit from the ideas and additional partnership opportunities. For the pilot, R&I engaged industry partner, Go Buddha, a locally owned and operated neighbourhood global food shop that offers counter service, made-to-order, multi-course hot table, prepared foods, and a global pantry. Inspired by farmers’ markets in Niagara and around the world, Go Buddha is designed as a community space that connects local and global food cultures.
Prior to participating in the Innovation Mentorship program, Kyla Pennie and the team at Go Buddha had already tapped into funded research with R&I as well as course-based research, receiving something different from each interaction. Not to mention, Kyla worked at the College for many years, so she’s a supporter of the institution and enjoys seeing students learn and succeed.
Back in March 2023, the program began with a kick-off meeting at the College where students heard from Kyla and they were presented with their marketing task, which was to come up with creative ways to grow Go Buddha’s brand and online presence, using a $5,000 budget.
Following that, the students visited Go Buddha Food Shop on Main Street West in Port Colborne and conducted Q&A sessions in their groups with Kyla, and her partner and co-owner Kevin Echlin, to get a better understanding of their needs.
Over two months, students worked on their marketing plans and the final presentations were held at the College, Dragon’s Den style, all with the goal of being the chosen winner.
Each group appointed 2 to 3 speakers to present to an esteemed panel. One of those panel members, along with David and Kyla, was R&I’s own Paula Reile, Research Program Manager for the Business & Commercialization Innovation Centre (BCIC).
“Some of the work that was coming out from these high school students was at the level I would expect from research assistants in College,” she said. “They took the time to understand the business and provide tactical recommendations, a lot of them were able to be implemented very quickly,” she added.
Special kudos should be given to the teachers and mentors in the program, she stressed, because clearly everyone involved helped prepare the students for success.
For Paula, the interesting part of this was also that the BCIC team is working on media projects for Go Buddha, and some of the ideas that the high school students were suggesting were similar to what her team is doing. That’s a win because Go Buddha wants their marketing to be targeted to a younger, Gen Z audience.
During the panel’s evaluation, the feedback was outstanding for this group of Grade 11 students, according to the industry partner. From accolades about their communication and presentation skills, to kudos for their unique ideas, it made picking a winning team tough.
“The presentations and quality of work exceeded my expectations,” said Kyla. “I was so impressed. From the visual presentations, to how professional they looked and the energy they brought to the project was amazing – these students understood the assignment.”
As anticipation built, the panel finally revealed the winners and the group heard first-hand from a member of the winning team ‘Miracle Marketing’, Rian Wilson.
“We all were forced to be leaders and we were all forced to take initiative because there was no one older or more experienced than us. So, I do feel like this program really helped us improve our marketing abilities and our leadership skills, and a great experience for everyone to learn.”
– Rian Wilson, student from Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School
“It was amazing but very nerve-wracking because our group worked very hard. The panel decided to announce two honorable mentions and then the winner. We had a feeling it was going to come down to us and another group called Summit. They announced one honorable mention, and it was neither us nor Summit and then they announced Summit as the other honorable mention, and we had a really good feeling. So, when we heard our names, we thought ‘Wow, all that hard work we put in has paid off,’ ” said Rian.
Besides the bragging rights, Rian and the team really felt that they gained valuable skills and knowledge by participating in the Innovation Mentorship Program. “I really found that working with a team and doing this presentation was a pretty cool experience. We all were forced to be leaders and we were all forced to take initiative because there was no one older or more experienced than us. So, I do feel like this program really helped us improve our marketing abilities and our leadership skills, and a great experience for everyone to learn,” he emphasized.
“The early intervention of high-school students is also a great way to expose them to Niagara College, so our Campus Recruitment department has been great to work with and very supportive. It’s really a strong partnership across multiple areas of the College,” David emphasized.
You may think that high-school students wouldn’t be experienced enough to make solid recommendations, but Kyla has already implemented some of the students’ ideas into their business.
“We’ve already implemented some of the ideas, like the student discount, and over the next year, I hope to do more,” said Kyla.
With the pilot wrapped up, the possibilities for the Innovation Mentorship program are endless. “If R&I can align our four Innovation Centres with the high-school curriculum, we could easily start to see the same kind of mentorship in culinary or the trades like advanced manufacturing,” said David.
Kyla hopes to see the program continue and applauded the R&I team: “My experience was phenomenal, everyone was well-organized, professional and I hope to see more students, teachers and industry partners get the chance to participate,” she said.
To make the program work, the key ingredients remain an engaged high-school teacher who is interested in experiential learning, matching them with a College faculty member, and an engaged industry partner.
If you’re an educator and want to participate in future iterations of the Innovation Mentorship Program, contact David DiPietro. Start the conversation with us today. For research and development partnership opportunities, contact David DiPietro, Manager, Business Development, at [email protected].