Creating Teen Access to Innovation Culture to Build a Better World

Dr. Lisa Dawley is Executive Director of the Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education at the University of San Diego and co-inventor of Pactful, an app to support social good innovation with teens. With over 25 years of experience in educational technology and innovation, Dr. Dawley provides leadership in the award-winning research, design and entrepreneurship of innovative learning technologies and organizations

When I first started teaching elementary school, I often felt there was a disconnect between district policies and what teachers were experiencing in their classroom while trying to meet their students’ needs. I wanted students and teachers to have a voice in their educational experience, and for those directly involved in the work to evolve the education system forward to better meet students’ needs. 

For those reasons, I went into higher education and eventually started researching and creating educational technologies to support teachers and students. It was here I became an innovator as I started to understand the R&D process. I spun out a company based on my first app, 3D GameLab, which later became Rezzly, a gamified learning app. Pactful was my second major educational app. The process of creating and scaling educational content and apps is a very tough space to work in. On average, adoption at mass scale can take up to 7-10 years or more. You must be persistent, have resources, and have a network to make it happen. 

I wanted to better support innovators in education, and I knew that had to start with teachers and students. As I began teaching educational innovation processes to graduate education students, I found myself wanting a software that offered a curriculum and mechanisms to better support students through these processes, as well as give the teacher an ability to easily track teams’ progress and communicate as they navigated through various phases of design thinking. When I arrived at the University of San Diego, Dr. Irwin and Mrs. Joan Jacobs were willing to invest in that vision, which is how Pactful was born. I was also very fortunate that my co-inventor, Monte Kalisch, an online learning veteran and former Chief Technology Officer of Connections Education, was available to partner in this work.

Pactful is also inspired by related work at the college level, such as the USD Changemaker Challenge, the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge, the T-Mobile Innovation Challenge, among others. However, developing an innovator’s mindset can, and should, start at a young age. So, we are focused on building a pipeline of the next generation of innovators by working with teenagers and their teachers. A major goal in this work is to create access to innovation culture with students who may not get access otherwise due to geographic location, race, gender or socio-economic level. We start with an online teacher summer camp to introduce middle and high school teachers to design thinking, and also host the annual Jacobs Teen Innovation Challenge, a semester-long virtual experience where teens develop social good solutions aligned to the UN Global Goals. We also work closely with school and district leaders from around the globe to help connect this program to their existing initiatives and goals, including customizing the experience and curriculum. Through these relationships, we have also modified our curriculum and training. For us, it’s a process of innovating with educators. 

As Pactful evolves, we are continuing to discover how this work can best support access to innovation culture and processes within the education sector. To start, it is important that we make the entire experience and curriculum accessible via mobile device. It is estimated over 84% of teens and 97% of adults in the U.S. have smartphones (Pew Internet Research, 2021). Globally, smartphones outnumber PC-type devices, so implementing a mobile strategy is crucial for enabling access. 

To illustrate further, some of the ways we work towards facilitating access to innovation culture include:

  • Provide no-cost teacher camps online every summer.

Every summer, we host a teacher camp to introduce teachers to social good innovation, and introduce them to the innovation challenge if they want to go further. Sign up at

  • Host the annual Jacobs Teen Innovation Challenge fully online. This year, we had participating teachers and students from over 10 countries with 65% of US students from Title 1 schools, and 65% of Title 1 students are persons of color.

We invite teachers new to innovation to participate in our annual teen innovation challenge. We will start again in the fall, sign up Anyone can create a free account in our app, access our innovator’s and teacher’s guide, as well as 30+ design thinking activities they can use on their own or in conjunction with the Challenge event. We have many teachers report that they learned with their students as the Challenge event unfolds due to our support with ongoing webinars and the existing curriculum.

Last year’s winners included solutions such as Go Green Food Bags, a sustainable solution for food storage to support responsible consumption, and Idle Reminder, an app developed for buses to monitor emissions while at stop signs and signals, supporting sustainable cities and communities. The team that created Idle Reminder has gone on to receive funding from Google to continue to build out their product. We are extremely proud that we played a role in supporting this work.

  • Invite speakers from diverse experiences to our Challenge webinars.

During the challenge event, we host webinars for teachers with experts in various aspects of educational innovation and ensure they represent diversity in terms of race, gender, and experiences. Some of these include Connie Liu, co-founder of Project Invent, Shakiri Murrain, CEO and Co-Founder at Mississippi Cares, and Andrew Arevalo, an award-winning teacher in El Centro, CA, for example. 

  • All our Pactful curricular materials are open access. This includes over 30 student activities aligned to three phases of design thinking, as well as an Innovator’s Guide, a Teacher’s Guide, and rubrics to help students toward developing innovative solutions to various problems as outlined in the Global Goals. Any teacher can access these materials at no-cost by creating an account at The materials can also be used by homeschooling parents with teenage students.

Looking toward the future of Pactful, one of our greatest challenges is to foster persistence in design work. It often unfolds over several months and teachers may lose motivation to continue. This year, we are launching our first virtual exchange, pairing teachers and teens in Colombia and the US to work together on common social problems. We believe the social support and commitment to other peers will increase motivation and persistence among teachers and students, help meet new civic engagement and global citizenship competencies many states are requiring, as well increase understanding of how global problems can vary at the local level. With a strong prototype in place, our goal is to expand the virtual exchange program globally by spring 2022.

At our core, we believe that teens, and their teachers, can build a better world. Our work will continue to evolve towards this goal.

To learn more about Pactful or to support this work, please visit

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