Eric Wilson always sat in the back, left-hand corner of his classrooms at Little Rock Catholic High School where, by his recollection, his education played to a two-note beat.
Most days, Wilson says, it was information in, information out.
“I was given information and expected to regurgitate it,” says Wilson, CEO of the education initiative Noble Impact, now in its second year operating out of the Clinton School of Public Service.
Wilson’s intent is not to indict his alma mater; education often involves using conventional methods to reach the most students. But as he continued his education and sought his role in life, Wilson couldn’t help wondering if there was another way.
After graduating Lyon College and joining the Clinton School as an unpaid intern in 2006, Wilson, 29, now can offer Noble Impact as just such an alternative.
“Noble Impact started out trying to answer the question ‘How do we better engage students?’ ”says Wilson, who began as an advisor to the initiative before transitioning to CEO last November.
Founded by Arkansas businessman Steve Clark and Clinton School of Public Service alumnus Chad Williamson, Noble Impact is an education initiative to establish public service and entrepreneurship as a core curriculum in public schools.
Patterned on the Clinton School’s public service curriculum, Noble Impact’s effort is to engage students with businesses and other local organizations to develop workable solutions to identified community problems.
Noble Impact programs include the Institute, which challenges students to make a problem-solving difference in their community; an elementary school-level version of the Institute; and Noble Impact 101, a year-long course that challenges high school students — as individuals, groups and teams — to explore the definition and action of public service and entrepreneurship.
Wilson notes a Gallup survey that shows a marked drop in student engagement from elementary school to high school. Noble Impact sets out to close the engagement gap.
“The answer is purpose,” Wilson says. “Students have to find purpose in order to find reason.”
In other words, giving students real-life problems to solve as opposed to feeding them knowledge for knowledge’s sake not only helps improve the community, it gives students practical skills and a “portfolio of experiences” that will help them in the job market.
“We say ‘Stop asking these kids what they want to be when they grow up. Start asking them what problems they want to solve,’ ” Wilson says.
Noble Impact started by launching The Institute last July. The inaugural, two-week program welcomed 32 students who divided into teams and were presented an organizational issue to solve.
The session ended with groups making their pitches to a panel of judges and community partners and the winning strategy was a solution for truancy at Little Rock’s Hall High School.
This year’s Institute involved 47 sophomores and juniors and was held over four days in Fort Smith. Noble Impact member and eStem student Sydney Brazil, 16, helped mentor this year’s group and used her Noble Impact know-how to launch her own startup, a gourmet doughnut hole maker called The Hole Thing.
With the technology available to students today plus the knowledge available through Noble Impact programs, students are much better situated to become entrepreneurs, Wilson says.
“When you give young people a seat at the table and their opinion matters a light goes on,” he adds. “And it changes the game and they start thinking differently.”
Wilson recalls when he first felt fully engaged as a student himself.
“The first class I ever had that required me to engage outside the classroom was Skip Rutherford’s Arkansas politics class at Lyon College,” he says.
It was Rutherford — current Clinton School dean, former Lyon board member and founding president of the William J. Clinton Foundation — who urged Wilson to take the Clinton School internship in 2006.
Wilson graduated college May 6 and was on the job May 8.
“I could not have asked for a better job out of college,” he says.
He recalls the 7 a.m. “Sunshine Meetings” with the school’s founding dean, former Arkansas governor and U.S. Senator David Pryor, when the group would discuss current events.
Wilson spent four years with the founding staff that helped to craft the world’s first masters program in public service and was the school’s first full-time director of development.
He went on to co-found, with his brother Joshua, Ariston Global Solutions, an emerging markets consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. He splits his time almost equally between Arkansas and the nation’s capital, working out of the Clinton School when he is home.
Wilson happily points out that Noble Impact is part of eStem’s core curriculum and that the Arkansas Department of Education has approved curriculum that Noble Impact can scale to other schools as well. And he is pleased to report that schools and universities in other states have also expressed interest.
As an Arkansan living in Washington — where the first question is often “Where are you from?” — Wilson is proud to have Noble Impact to tout.
“It’s important to me that Noble Impact is in Arkansas,” he says. “And it’s important when I tell people it’s also about Arkansas.”