Students prove time and again that, given a challenge, they rise to the occasion with solutions. Let’s keep their ingenuity center stage, and reward it!

SAP mentors work with AdVenture Capital students from across the country as they participate in the SAP Design 4 Good Challenge. Student teams pitched ideas to create a healthier learning environment, and winners were awarded $1,000 to help implement their ideas.

There’s a piece of wisdom that has worked its way into our collective consciousness that says 10,000 hours of practice are needed to become an expert at something. Yet strangely, when it comes to creating healthier school environments, we rarely consult the expertise and passion of students, whose waking lives are spent in exactly that environment!

One thing I’ve learned in my work is that young people are uniquely qualified to make positive changes in their schools and daily lives, based on solutions they devise. But first, they need to be asked. And then they need to be heard.

As a mom of 4 and the CEO of a non-profit dedicated to school wellness, I’ve witnessed first-hand the remarkable capabilities of young people to find solutions that make a real difference in their lives and that of their peers. Looking specifically at how we could access and harness the ingenuity and problem-solving power of youth, my organization launched a program called AdVenture Capital.

Its sole purpose: to give students opportunities to innovate and lead positive change through their own ideas.

With our partner, technology giant SAP, we recently hosted two virtual events that helped us translate our more traditional in-person “design thinking” workshops into an analogous “Design 4 Good” virtual experience. It should also be noted that Arby’s Foundation hosted a digital event for our students, the “AdVenture Capital Innovation Experience.” The support of SAP and Arby’s Foundation is commendable, by encouraging extracurricular activities to continue online, even when so many other student activities have been put on hold for the foreseeable future. I applaud these virtual opportunities for students to come together to think, learn, and create solutions to real-world problems in new ways.

In all the years that we’ve held these events with SAP and other extraordinary partners, I have consistently been astonished by the creativity and resilience of students, but this year even more so.

For anyone in education or at home with a student or two or three, you know that this year looks so much different than any in recent history. The ingenuity, innovation, and the empathy of youth, despite the crazy times we’re living through has simply been amazing. And although the road ahead for students, teachers, and school administrators is still not clear, I’ve seen how important it is to listen to the real experts — students themselves — and to provide them with the opportunities and tools they need, especially in this uncharted environment.

Because the “safe spaces” of schools and classrooms in a traditional sense have been taken away by the pandemic, it’s been observed by many that both parents and children are experiencing measurable and worsening mental health challenges during the pandemic.

Students from across the country are undoubtedly feeling this, as my own organization’s own recent survey, Life Disrupted: The Impact of COVID-19 on Teens, showed. So when our AdCap students from six different states got together on Zoom with the ultimate goal of creating healthier learning environments, aided by mentors and judges from SAP, they brought the usual unique but very timely perspective to the process of developing and pitching entrepreneurial projects.

Lauren Williams, a graduate student based in New York City, mentored a group of students from Utah, and shared why her group’s initiative moved her, from the moment the students began talking about what they were going through emotionally at this difficult time.

“They came ready to tackle a plan dealing with youth mental health — something their school and others in the district had been struggling with,” she reported. Lauren’s mentees came up with an innovative healthy-habit-oriented multimedia campaign — one created for students by students. She says the idea from her group has stuck with her, and even influenced how she’ll practice her own self-care.

Like adults, many students are feeling disconnected and overwhelmed with the changes this year has created. The coronavirus has taught us how difficult it can be to adapt to new, challenging and unpredictable circumstances. And as always I am incredibly impressed by the degree to which kids from all different backgrounds have so successfully done just that.

We saw some wildly inventive AdVenture Capital ideas from students over the past few weeks — like scannable QR codes that can be used to find the nearest sanitizing locations. And lots of solutions for reducing, and coping with, the demands of screen time, something everyone’s obsessed with. Many students who are doing the most ingenious things, and thriving in the process, hail from locales hardest-hit by the virus. And still, they prevail.

From my own children’s lives over the past eight months, I know how many so-called milestone moments kids have missed out on this year. But that’s all the more reason to invest in youth now. Especially in a hybrid or socially-distanced form, education — wherever it happens — should be a place of equilibrium, equality, and hope.

Whether it’s the digital divide, or the fact that food insecurity has made U.S. public schools ground zero for hunger in America, there’s a great deal to be done. What’s so special about AdVenture Capital is that it’s giving youthful entrepreneurs a sense of ownership over their own ideas and solutions, and setting them up for future success in executing real-life problem solving.

We have a responsibility to foster that future, and pay more than lip service to their often brilliant ideas. For our part, my team and I at GENYOUth will continue working to help amplify youthful voices, and to create venues — in-person or virtual — in which youthful wisdom can be encouraged, made real, and rewarded!