Philadelphia Innovation Festival

Student reflects on the trip to the BPhl Innovation Festival by PVHS NOVA Lab students.

Taja's Digital Porfolio

The B.PHL Innovation Festival in Philly was an amazing experience. Hearing successful people with experience in the world of entrepreneurship talk about what we’ve been talking about in class for the past few weeks was extremely validating. I’m also grateful we had the opportunity to listen to the speakers and tour the space. At times I felt out of place in rooms full of adults (including when a lady was shocked that we knew the song Don’t Go Breaking My Heart…really?!) but learning design thinking and entrepreneurship values now, instead of learning it later in life and having to completely change my mindset, is definitely the better route. 

Above are my notes on Richard Montanez/The Flaming Hot Cheetos Success story. This was by far my favorite presentation, and I’ll break down my favorite parts below:

“Why do I do it? Because I can.”

Mr. Montanez spoke a lot about how…

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Existential Questions on Why the Heck I Enrolled in Innovation Lab

One of my students in the new inNOVAtion Lab class muses on what brought her to this mess…I mean this class. (Of course, as anyone who engages in this type of learning knows, it’s inherently messy and not easy to manage. But the payoffs are huge.)

Taja's Digital Porfolio

I think my main attraction towards this class is how open it was. For weeks, I thought “wait, what am I getting myself into? Why is the syllabus a drawing?? Why aren’t things clear?!?!?” Eventually I came to realize… that’s what the class is about. It’s not a normal class with a syllabus and a curriculum and a test Friday, and oh by the way don’t forget about the 40 terms due at midnight.

My brain when I walk into this class.

I’ve always performed well in school, but I can rarely take a step back and say I enjoy what I’m doing. In fact, I don’t think PV’s (or, any public American high school) system works for me–I love learning, but I consider myself a pretty bad test taker. I thrive in situations where I interact with others, whether it’s my classmates or my teachers, and then interact with…

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Brains, Cheetos, and a Theory of Creativity

(The final installment of my blog posts about the B.Phl Innovation Festival. Here’s the first post.  Here’s the second.)

On Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, 31 of the 54 students enrolled in NOVA Lab attended the third day of the first annual B.Phl Innovation Festival.

While our trip was somewhat shortened (traffic on the abominable Schukyll Expressway kept us from making our first session), we were greeted at the Independence Blue Cross building with great hospitality by their innovation team and helpers for the festival.  After receiving our badges and swag bags, we were escorted up to the Innovation Center where we waited for our next session.

Working with our district’s chair of art and design, Mr. Tom Komp, we split the students for our 1st session.  Some of the students came with me for a session called “Know your Brain, Know your Business” with Julie Skolnik of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute Science Museum.  The other students traveled with Mr. Komp to a session called “How a Frito-Lay Janitor became a Flamin’ Hot Success Story.”  This session featured Richard Montañez, Pepsi Company’s head Multicultural Sales and Community Promotions for North America.  Skolnik’s session dealt with myths about brain function and how to use knowledge of how the brain learns to maximize learning and workflow.  Montañez’s session focused on his story and rise within the ranks of the company.  It also featured Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (see images below)

We were privileged to get seats for two sessions with Disney’s former Head of Innovation and Creativity, Duncan Wardle.  Duncan’s first session focused on his “Theory of Creativity” and belief that we can all be creative.  An interactive sesssion, Duncan introduced the audience to activities like “The Expert Interview” .  In traditional creativity presentation fashion, Duncan sought to reveal the functional fixedness our “rivers of expertise” lock us into.  And he did this with humor anecdotes and a good deal of the insights he garnered from 30 years at Disney.  (See the mindmap below.)  Having attended countless such sessions in my 25+ years studying creativity and innovation, I can say that Duncan’s session was one of the most insightful and honest sessions I’ve experienced.

Mindmap of Duncan’s “Theory of Creativity Session”

After Duncan’s first session, we wolfed down our lunches and were treated to a private tour of the Independence Blue Cross Innovation Center by Innovation Director, Patrick Dudley.

The afternoon found a few of our students heading to a session with QuestLove of the Philly band, “The Roots” (also the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show), and Todd Carmichael, co-founder and CEO of Philadelphia’s own “La Colombe coffee.”

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The majority of us returned for another session with Duncan Wardle called, “Innovation Excavation:  From Toybox tot Toolbox.”  Here Duncan led almost 100 attendees through several hours of exercises in which we used divergent (“expansionist” was Duncan’s term) thinking and convergent thinking (“reductionist”) to design innovative solutions the challenge, “How might we get more 21-25 year olds to come to our theater and spend more money?”  From “No, because” to “Yes, and,” from “What ifs…” to “Love-o-Meters” Duncan led the group through his Innovation Toolkit, “the Imagination Emporium” with the same humor and sagacity he exhibited in his first session.

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We came to the B.Phl Innovation Festival to get first-hand experience with innovation, to see what it looks like in action, and to understand its importance in all areas of our economic, artistic, and educational systems.  We left as participants in a world that many never get to see until they’ve spent years in the workforce.  As well, they’re taking with them the knowledge that their ideas and hard work can bring value not only to themselves but to the world at large.


A Day in the Life of a BPhl Innovation Festival Attendee

This was a long week, but I wish it were longer.

And that is due to the B.Phl Innovation festival.

Centered at the Independence Blue Cross (IBX) building (1901 Market), with Ground Zero being the IBX Innovation Center on the 13th and 14th floors.

However, the festival spread out around the city, from the University Science Center, to Temple University, to the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, to Penn’s Innovation (Pennovation) space.  For three days people from around the region and beyond converged on Philadelphia to learn about, discuss, and engage in Innovation and a host of related issues (design, design thinking, civil discourse and communication, and creativity).

Here’s a brief overview of my sessions from Day 1.  Read these and you’ll understand

Leveraging Innovation:  Leadership Skills to Drive Change and Make an Impact.

IMG_1374First point of impact here…all three panelists and the moderator were women.  And their stories were amazing , from managing innovation for PECO, Philadelphia’s largest energy provider, to urban planning at the Philadelphia Naval Yard (worth an entire blogpost on its own!), to Human Resources for Momentum Dynamics who make wireless electrical vehicle chargers, all the panelists had impactful stories about their successes and their challenges.  As a teacher working on managing 54 students in two Innovation courses, I learned a lot about listening, empowering, and how to help students over obstacles.  Thank you PECO.

Changing the Course of Discourse:  A Return to Old School Civility


I spent 27 years of my life, from my late teens to my late fourties, as a speech and debate coach for my school district at both the middle school and high school levels.   Most months between October and April I was gone two weekends out of the month and wouldn’t return home on certain Wednesdays until well past 9PM.  I’m not looking for sympathy.  I did this of my own accord, because the spoken word and keen, attentive, active listening are that central to my own view of what constitutes an educated human being.

This session featured Julie Wolmer, the 10th president of Widener University; Larry Platt, editor of the independent newspaper, The Citizen; Jeffery Rosen, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Constitution Center; and Brett Parker, Chair of the Committee of 70.  The panel discussed the importance of truly listening in an age when social media and political stratification has created what Jeffrey Rosen called, “The Madisonian Nightmare”–a country where factionalization has divided us to such an extent that the federal nature of a federal government and a citizenry bound by a constitution that demands active (not passive) participation in that government is in peril.

I came to Philadelphia to engage in innovation, to participate in design sprints, listen to entrepreneurs, and generally drive my knowledge of innovation to new levels.  But I left this session reminded of something I’d overlooked:  None of that is possible if we cannot communicate.  Innovation in an ever diverse world requires two key pieces before we even begin.  Those pieces, as the design firm IDEO puts it, are Empathy and Radical Collaboration.  Thus, you cannot even pretend to engage in innovation if you’re not grounded in a culture that honors and empowers every voice, that has structures for and practices active listening, promotes critical feedback, and that recognizes the necessity of spaces that invite all voices to the table.

Mindmap of Changing the Course of Discourse

Thank you Larry Platt and the rest of the panel, and the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce for hosting this sessions, perhaps the most important session of all.


Innovation:  Writing your Story: Nat Measley

This was everything I’d hoped it would be.  In NOVA Lab, we talked a great deal about story, why it’s important to tell compelling stories for entrepreneurs and even for ourselves.  Students spend so much time writing analytic essays, Text Dependent Analyses, Lab Reports, and short responses to questions asked by everyone but themselves.  Is it any wonder that most have a good deal of trouble telling a compelling story about themselves and why they matter?  Nat Measley, a Univ. of Delaware professor, formerly Master of Fun at the Fun Department, (and a genuinely Fun guy), took us through a 40 minutes session in why writing our own story is so important and why publishing it and getting into the hands of people is crucial to our success as entrepreneurs, no matter how big our dreams.  His website, makes  such publishing a breeze, whether it be for individuals or startups or even larger companies.

IMG_1409Follow us here at NOVA Lab, because we will be publishing our story!  Thanks @NatMeasley.

Check out the next blog post to find out about the NOVA Lab Field Trip and our work with @duncanjwardle at the Independence Blue Cross Innovation Center.

Philadelphia’s B.Phl Innovation Festival

A few weeks ago one of the students in NOVA Lab informed me of an innovation festival being hosted in Philadelphia.   After checking it out on the web, I was convinced this would be a place for our students to learn why innovation and design thinking were so important to the economy they’d soon be entering.

But after investigating cost, it was soon clear that we’d never afford the tickets.

Undeterred, I wrote the email below:


I am a teacher at a high school about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia.  This year I am piloting a problem-finding/solving for social impact class called inNOVAtion Lab.  Your festival has several great events that would really help us build out and understand the work we are doing/want to do.  However, there’s no way we could afford a $250 registration/person, and our students’ e-mail addresses are “.org” addresses as we are a public school.
We were looking at coming down for just one day, as the 15–17 timeframe impacts our school day.  
Is there any chance we might be able to get student registration fees for the students and myself?  Not all the students (there are 54) would be coming, but if I could get a list together, would you consider such a reduction in registration?  
If you are interested in the class and what we’ve been doing (as well as a bit of history of our thinking on this matter) you might start at our current website: .  You could also read a few testimonials on the benefits of such a class from a former student here.

Within a few hours, I got a reply.  (See below.  However, let me say that what I learned from a former student, who was able to get a local philanthropist to fund her debate competitions on the national circuit simply by telling her story of accomplishments and needs…yeah, what I learned from her…it paid off: “If you never ask, you never know.”)

Hi Garreth,

Thank you for your interest in B.PHL, Philadelphia’s first citywide innovation festival. After looking through your website and learning out what the inNOVAtion Lab is about, we would like to offer you free badges, enough for your students and faculty. The link included below will grant you 70 badges. Each person should register for their own badge so they receive it to their emails. They can also use the code: *********** to get access to the tickets through the BPHL website.

In the ensuing weeks, I’ve booked 35 of our 56 students for a field trip for this coming Thursday.  We’ll be listening to former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney,  Duncan Wardle, we’ve also managed to get a free tour of the Independence Blue Cross Innovation Center, and seats at an exclusive “Innovation Excavation” with Duncan Wardle, as well as a few other insightful presentations.

There’s plenty of criticism, some of it legitimate but not nearly unique, about the overuse of the word “innovation” in the world today.  But I just returned from a day on my own at the Innovation Festival, and if what I heard from speaker after speaker is true, there’s little in the business world that’s currently as important as being able to innovate your way to a prosperous future.

In session after session today, my own studies of and writings (here and here) about innovation have been legitimated. From the importance of civil discourse and how design helps students develop key communication skills to the benefits of storytelling and learning from failure, I heard members of the business, higher-education, design and communication fields tout the importance of innovation and entrepreneurial mindsets.

Why are things the way they are...NOVA Lab was designed with two key questions as its foundation:  Why are things the way they are?   How can we make them better?  The class is an embodiment of my belief in the power of education, and in design and innovation to elevate the power of the liberal arts and empower students to make the world a better place.

Thank you, B.Phl Innovation Festival.

Students and I will blog more on Thursday after the sessions.

*featured image from