When the school bell rings, most students head to a soccer field, computer lab, or an art classroom for after-school clubs. But at the New England Innovation Academy, some high school students are using their free time to help redesign a nearby mall.
At the private middle and high school in Marlborough, students in the Design-A-Mall club have partnered with the Solomon Pond Mall since last October to plan renovations aimed at helping the mall attract new customers.
“It’s a dying mall,” said Lily Fu, head of collaboration at the New England Innovation Academy. “Burlington Mall or Natick Mall have all kind of blossomed into these places for young people, and for Solomon Pond, people try to not go there if they don’t have to.”
The collaboration began when the management team at the mall, which opened in 1996, reached out to the school through the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce. They asked about having students design renovations to reimagine the mall experience, Fu said.
Fu said the club gives students the chance to be creative while learning about entrepreneurship by looking at budgeting and analyzing consumer appeal.
Aaron Zhang, a high school junior and one of the club leaders, said students have had to apply what they learned in school about entrepreneurship to the project, such as interviewing store owners and potential customers about what could be done to change the mall’s image to customers.
“Going around interviewing the different store owners and seeing all these different perspectives is actually quite interesting,” Hans-Peter Hansen, one of the other student club leaders, said. “And you come up with ideas, that’s also cool because you get the eureka moments that are quite nice.”
Hansen said one idea the team recently came up with was creating simulations of a rainforest inside the mall to give customers an interesting experience when they visit. The group was inspired by a spa room in Milan, Italy, he said, which simulates clouds and thunder.
“We came up with the idea to not just have like thunderstorms, but also to have a rainforest with different smells and the humidity there as well,” Hansen said. “Also simulating all the design features and things like the deep ocean was another one, so you’re underwater and have all these colorful jellyfish.”
This was one of multiple ideas students presented to the mall’s management team on Feb. 24, according to Fu.
Fu said Elizabeth Kelley, the general manager of the mall, was impressed with the students’ “creativity and ability to bounce back from their failures.”
In the student’s first presentation to the management team, Zhang said students took some criticism that their ideas lacked creativity.
“We kind of misunderstood what our assignment was so we were severely restricted by the budget,” Zhang said. Kelley “expressed some concerns about our some of our suggestions saying they were too small, and she wanted more unique and creative ideas.”
Fu said the criticism was helpful in teaching students about what it’s like to pitch business ideas and face rejection.
“Her critique was pretty sharp for a teenager, but I thought that was necessary,” Fu said. “That is how you learn in the real world, and [the kids] are failing in a safe space.”
“Our property management was looking for fresh ideas to drive traffic and interest to the mall and we were happy to collaborate with NEIA’s students,” said Kelley, the mall’s general manager, in statement to the Globe. “[The students] brought us some innovative, bold, and creative ideas to consider.”
Victor Lim, one of the club members, said joining the club has taught him about how to keep motivated and work through rejection on long-term business projects.
“I think I’ve taken the experience in stride, and we’ve kind of shifted the idea from fixing the mall into more of changing what a mall is considered,” Lim said. “How can we create a unique experience for the people coming to Solomon Pond Mall?”
Fu said the club provides a safe environment for students to try applying business skills to the real world, and working on this project will teach students how to listen to feedback from others.
“One of the takeaways for them was to listen better,” Fu said. “One of the outcomes is not giving up and to keep repeating the process, and you’ll get better at it.”