On asking lots of questions and talking to fishmongers

A University of Washington Management professor shares her insights about teaching with IdeaMachine and creating immersive learning experiences

Emily Cox - 2.jpg

Emily Cox Pahnke

In a typical classroom, students learn through lectures and discussions, but these methods can fail to mimic real-world problems. Interactive learning experiences can bring the complexity of the outside world into the classroom. Students can be confronted with uncertainty and learn by rising to the challenge.

We spoke with Emily Cox Pahnke, a Professor of Management at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business, who teaches a variety of courses at different levels. Pahnke uses IdeaMachine in her classes to create an immersive entrepreneurial experience. IdeaMachine is an interactive platform that lets instructors quickly create engaging social communities around key questions. Instructors can use IdeaMachine to send students brief challenges (questions) that they can answer via their mobile devices, responding with text, pictures, or video. Students can then interact with the answers of their peers, commenting, voting and reacting.

Professor Pahnke shared with us how she uses IdeaMachine in her courses.


“One of the things that is exciting about teaching entrepreneurship that is hard to capture in a classroom is that being an entrepreneur is an immersive experience, and not something you can do for 8 hours a day. IdeaMachine lets me extend the classroom experience to get students to encounter ideas and prompts at different points in their lives.”

Pahnke’s classes are focused on how entrepreneurs can come up with ideas and then vet them. IdeaMachine allows her to pose questions or prompt students at different points in their day. Pahnke shared that this helps students see how their environment, the timing, who they are with, and where they are can shape the ideas that they generate and their perceptions of the viability of that idea.

Pahnke carefully designs her IdeaMachine assignments for different classes.

In one of her classes, she uses the “challenge a day” approach, sending students numerous questions that challenge them to think about business ideas in environments that they may not consider ideal for idea generation. Wherever they are, students are prompted to consider how they would approach a problem. In the second half of that course, students explore the ideas they came up with and reflect as a team about what they learned through the prompts.

  • If you were given $10,000 right now, how would you spend that money to move this idea forward?
  • If you had to find a different customer set for your product, how would you do it?
  • Go to the market and watch the fishmonger throw around fish. What strikes you about what he is doing? What differentiates him from the other fishmongers at the market? Why is he doing what he is doing?

In another class, a kickoff for a one-year Masters Program, Pahnke aims to embed students in the Seattle entrepreneurial ecosystem right away. Her goal is to show students that business ideas and lessons can come from anywhere, from anyone at any time. One of the first challenges she sends her students involves a trip outside of class to the market.


“I find that learning with IdeaMachine can be empowering for students because it forces them to engage with the ambiguity and chaos of entrepreneurship. Students are used to getting things right in a structured class environment and my classes can drive them a little bit insane at first. They are not used to uncertainty."

Pahnke tells her students up front that they won’t necessarily enjoy her class at first. Students may look to her to tell them if their idea is a good one, but she will respond by asking them to find out for themselves and to look for evidence that could support their idea. She sends a series of IdeaMachine questions without a lot of explanation, an instructional approach that can make students “freak out a little bit.” But she doesn’t mind. In fact, it’s what she wants. In class, after answering prompts, she unpacks what students learned and finds that the early struggles lead to students to “aha” moments as they make sense of their experiences. At the end of the course, students often tell her that they wish they had more of these challenges but that at first, the prompts were tough to deal with.

Pahnke tells us that IdeaMachine is really effective for pushing students to realize that good ideas can come from anywhere. If students really look for opportunities, they will find them.


As you design questions, consider the following:

  • Think carefully about how you want students to think about their ability to deal with the unexpected, and figure out to use IdeaMachine to make them feel better about that ability.
  • When you post questions, consider questions that will be difficult for students but not so difficult as to be insurmountable.
  • Draw a line between the inherent ambiguity involved in entrepreneurship and clear assessment. The challenge may place students in a state of uncertainty, but they do need to understand what they have to do to get a good grade. The experience can be ambiguous, but not the grading.


“IdeaMachine gives me the ability to surprise students and keeps them engaged in the classroom in ways that other traditional learning methods don’t. The assignments themselves can be empowering. Students learn that they can have great ideas and can figure out if those ideas are good ones but that they have to push themselves in ways that are unexpected.”

Pahnke tells us that traditional cases work, but they don’t push students to be creative or to view themselves as creative. Students in her MBA Program, particularly students with more experience, have told her that they think this is an amazing tool that allows them to think about how to grow in ways that they could not have done on their own.

Pahnke also finds that IdeaMachine allows student voices to be heard who may have otherwise not been heard: “It’s the person in the back of the class who is quiet who may have come up with an incredible idea. IdeaMachine surfaces that contribution: other students notice that the idea got many upvotes.” This too, helps students realize that ideas can come from unexpected sources.


Where do the ideas for great products and companies come from?

This assignment is designed to help you better understand the process of ideation, or the way that ideas are generated and iterated upon. Because entrepreneurship is both an individual and a team activity, this assignment will also be a chance for you to evaluate other student’s ideas, to form a term project team, and to begin to think about the project you will pursue this quarter. You will submit a two-page write up, and single PowerPoint that you will present to the class. The assignment will constitute 10% of the overall course grade and has both individual and team components as outlined below. You will be randomly assigned to teams.

Individual Assignment (4/10 points):

Complete each prompt that you receive from IdeaMachine. Note that prompts will come to you via text or email at random times throughout the week. Please respond as quickly as possible to each one- it is fine to give them some thought, but elaborate planning/ staging is not necessary at this point. Most prompts will ask you to respond with a photo, video, or text to answer a question.

Comment and like other student’s ideas. To get full points on this part of the assignment you must be actively evaluating and interacting with other student’s ideas. Please note that I expect that all interactions will be constructive and professional.

Think about whom you might like to be on a term project team with, based on the ideas they have on this assignment.

As a Team (6/10 points)

Each team will complete a 2-page write-up and make one PowerPoint Slide about what they have learned about ideation via the IdeaMachine experience. In your write-up, you should discuss the following:

What are the most interesting things you learned while doing this assignment?.Some possibilities include your team dynamics, understanding what people would actually participate in, how things would go etc. What might you do differently if you were to do this assignment again? Why?

What were your initial reactions to the Idea Machine prompts that you received? How did your ideas change after interacting with other students and based upon our class discussion on ideation? How do you think you will use ideation to develop your term project? One member of each team should submit the write-up.

DELIVERABLES. Each team must also submit a single power point slide via a Google Drive link, outlining the experience. Each team will have 90 seconds to show this slide to the class and discuss their experiences. A prize will be awarded to the audience favorite.