The 22 high-achieving University of Maryland students gathered in a loft-like classroom had to apply just to get into this class. And the class itself is a high-stakes competition.

Over three semesters, they’re charged with inventing a workable technology to detect gunshots in school buildings, which could reduce casualties. In a year, they’ll gather for a “Shark Tank”-style competition to present their business pitches. The winning team could secure up to $2 million in private equity funding.

With millions on the line and the daunting challenge of stopping school shootings hanging over them, the room full of would-be problem solvers and business tycoons listened on one late-April afternoon as their mustachioed, bespectacled professor asked them to … draw a squiggly line?

J. Gerald Suarez wasn’t joking. Draw a squiggle, he said. The students, some with puzzled looks, did so. Now pass your paper to a neighbor, Suarez instructed. They did. OK, now turn the squiggle into a bird. More puzzled looks.

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This assignment has nothing to do with school shootings, Suarez later admitted. But he said it helps get the students to think differently about the implications of their actions, including unintended consequences.

“The idea behind these activities is to help them sort of notice, experiment and reflect,” Suarez said in an interview. “Many of the activities, they seem seemingly insignificant, but we begin to work them in progressive fashion.”

It may seem silly, but Suarez has decades of experience getting people to think outside the box. He worked in two presidential administrations, Democrat Bill Clinton’s and Republican George W. Bush’s. He worked for Lockheed Martin. He wrote books in two languages. He was a psychology researcher for the Navy. He had, according to his resume, the highest security clearance the U.S. government grants.

Exercises like the squiggle-to-bird one have been featured in the early weeks of the university’s newest entrepreneurial program. Suarez’s class is the inaugural cohort. Called xFoundry, a press release announcing its creation last year describes the initiative as striving to “solve global grand challenges, ranging from rising atmospheric carbon to the growing threat of wildfires.”

XFoundry’s co-founder and executive director, Amir Ansari, describes himself as a serial entrepreneur whose family awarded $10 million to the first nongovernmental organization to launch a reusable crewed spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.

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“It kind of brings out this new mindset in us,” Srinidhi Gubba, a freshman from Oregon, said about the xFoundry program. Gubba, who was the Oregon chapter leader of the Girls Computing League in high school, said the class is simultaneously daunting and exciting. The problem is profound, the possibilities ripe.

“It’s definitely helpful on the way I think, and being more open and seeing more perspectives,” she said. “There are definitely some moments when I am asking myself, ‘Am I doing something that will help me with the competition? Am I creating an effective solution yet?’”

Suarez’s challenge is to help his students break down a monumental societal challenge — in this case school shootings — and make it digestible for a cohort of people who are mostly too young to buy beer.

“Imagine asking a 19-year-old to solve this,” Suarez said. Throwing them into such a huge problem without a pathway could lead to frustration and paralysis in terms, he said.

“We want to balance challenging them with guiding them, and we don’t guide them in the solution, we guide them in the process of discovery.”

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The xFoundry students were born after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. They are wading into a problem that has been present their entire lives: There have been at least 404 school shootings since Columbine. The adults have been unable to make much of a dent.

“This shouldn’t be our issue to solve, but the real world doesn’t work that way,” said Om Desai, a public health major from Montgomery County. One reason he is interested in tackling school shootings: The arrest of an 18-year-old in Rockville, 20 minutes from where Desai went to high school, who authorities say had a 129-page “manifesto” with designs on attacking an elementary school.

“It’s terrifying we have to solve this problem,” Desai said.

But isn’t it a bit strange to compete to solve school shootings? To build a business that, ostensibly, is selling school children’s safety? Not exactly, Desai said. There’s still a lot of learning going on.

“It’s less so you’re selling safety, more so you’re working in a business atmosphere,” said Desai, who competed in similar competitions during high school. “I think that’s what this class and this program is implementing.”

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As their first semester wrapped up, the teams were still squarely in the idea phase, trying to figure out the best approach to gunshot detection and whether they can come up with something new and workable. Gunshot detection technology exists, and any designs the students make would have to break new ground to warrant a payout at the end. They’re confident they can find a way.

“In a world of innovation, there’s always more that can be done,” Desai said.