Social Entrepreneurship Course Design


I took a course in Social Entrepreneurship during my sophomore year at Brown. At the end of the semester, the professors engaged me, and two other students, in redesigning and improving the course. I collaborated with other students and professors to redesign the structure of the course, and worked as a teaching assistant.


We identified the key issues with the current course as:

  • The trajectory was unclear to students, and didn’t seem to build on previous knowledge over the semester.
  • While the case study structure was helpful, students needed a more robust theoretical framework to make sense of those case studies, and to allow them to analyze other organizations.
  • Students needed more guidance in applying theories across case studies.
  • The course was too focused on future company founders. We felt a lot of the content could be useful for any student interested in models of social change, and in evaluating the ethics and theories of change of potential future employers.
  • 60 students was too large to engage true discussion and to clarify complex ideas.

We addressed these issues with changes in the course format and assignments, and a reorganization of the semester.

In order to both emphasize the broad applicability of the course’s ideas and to establish a progression over the course of the class, we created six modules that modeled how someone would look at a social problem, grow to understand it, design an innovative model for addressing that problem, and evaluate the effectiveness and ethics of their approach. These modules examined:

  • Problem definition and root cause analysis: What exactly is the problem at hand? What is at the root of this social problem?
  • Systems thinking: What system does this problem exist within, and what are the dynamics of that system? What points of this system could be pressed upon to change it?
  • Ethics: What comprises an ethical, participatory approach to social change? What are the major pitfalls of social justice work?
  • Evaluation: How do we determine if an organization is making its intended impact?
  • Business models: How are socially innovative organizations structured and funded? What makes one model more or less appropriate for a situation than another?
  • Scale: How can an organization shift from providing a service to fundamentally and sustainably changing the root cause and system of a social problem? How can you transform the relationship between the inputted resources and the resulting social impact?

We added discussion sections to the course, which allowed for small group discussion and gave students a chance to try out the course’s theories on a small scale.

We had each student choose a single case study to work with throughout the semester, which all of their written assignments were based upon. This both gave them continuity in content, and allowed them to build upon past analyses. While most case studies presented in the class were used as an example of single module, this structure forced students to look at each facet of an organization, and identify strengths and weaknesses. We also asked students to do thought experiments, such as considering how an organization would operate differently with a nonprofit or for-profit model, or to imagine how they could design methods for evaluation.


The course is still a work in progress, and continues to be taught annually at Brown. The revised structure of the six modules has remained, and has proved effective. The course has also seen very high numbers of interested students. The assignments required further refinement, but the general idea of working with the same case for the semester and applying a series of frameworks to it has proved useful.

Within a single semester, we saw students become significantly more confident about the frameworks and their analyses and recommendations over the course of the semester.


While the discussion sections made a big difference, we sometimes found ourselves scrambling for examples and analogies. I got excited and started to work on several simple example sheets to explain various concepts. This one uses transportation as a system to explain leverage points:

We also struggled with the case studies that students used to write papers over the course of the semester. The case studies were written by undergraduates as an independent study the semester before, but we had little time to edit and refine them, and to get more data from the organizations they were profiling. This led to some information gaps that frustrated students, and hindered their ability to make concrete and thoughtful analyses and recommendations. This led to using Harvard Business Review case studies for some assignments, and to refining the established case studies.

Course Design, Strategy