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Voice: July 2016
This story is part of a regular series, "Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,'' that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania's public schools.
Have you ever heard of Shanma's Chocolates? Or Find My Fido - a company that designs tracking devices for runaway dogs? How about PrismPostal, an outfit that can put a sensor in your mailbox to tell you whether you have mail?
These are all companies that students at Big Spring High School created as a part of a "Shark Tank"- style class that matches them with local business mentors who help teach them how to be entrepreneurs.
On the popular TV show, entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of investors with the goal of getting funding for their ideas. While the students at the Cumberland County school aren't asking for thousands of dollars from billionaires, they are building companies from the ground up, and learning a lot about life in the process.
Big Spring Superintendent Richard Fry learned about the business incubator program concept at Barrington High School in Illinois while attending a national conference for superintendents. He was excited to bring the idea back to Big Spring.
Teachers and administrators in the district wanted to get the implementation right, so they took their time planning. They developed an advisory panel, including the director of curriculum, teachers, and business people from the local community and beyond, to draw feedback and put together a solid plan for how the course would work.
The 2015-16 school year was the first year of the Business Incubator Program.
"We began the course by having students develop a list of problems," said Cherie Powell, Big Spring High School business teacher and Business Department chair. "We called it the, 'what bugs me list.' All the things that go on around you and you wish there was a better way to do it."
Learning to work together
After developing the list, students were put into teams.
At first, the teachers allowed students to pick their groups. They observed how they interacted with their chosen peers, and noticed that they weren't challenging each other. After conducting personality tests and having students complete entrepreneurial trait surveys, the teachers grouped students into more diverse teams.
"In the real world, you can't make progress if everyone agrees all the time," Powell said.
The lesson hit home with the students.
"I've learned that you have to make sacrifices when you're working with others," said Alec Kessler, a junior. "You can't always have things your way."
Making it real
Once the students were in their teams, they chose a problem from their list that would be worth solving.
"They completed research, found out who had the problem, and from there developed a solution to that problem," Powell said. "They then developed that solution into a product that is actually going to be marketed, provided they obtain funding."
That's how Shanma's Chocolates, Find My Fido, and PrismPostal came into being.
The students have received a lot of guidance along the way- not just from Powell and Lisa Black, Big Spring's career coordinator, but also from business professionals serving as mentors to each group and local business coaches visiting the class to teach lessons from their experiences.
"It's interesting to learn from entrepreneurs because we connect with people from the outside world, instead of just the classroom," said Samantha Crouse, a sophomore.
Putting ideas to the test
The final challenge of the course was a presentation to a panel of business professionals. Each group pitched their product - just like on Shark Tank - and the potential investors asked questions, challenging the groups on their knowledge and putting their nerves to the test.
Shanma's Chocolates, a company selling homemade fudge-covered items such as marshmallows, sugar cookies, and strawberries, distributed samples to the judges during the presentation. Members of the group had even taken their product to Taste of Carlisle, a local food festival, for market research.
The Find My Fido group made a tracking device for canine runaways, and PrismPostal developed a mailbox sensor, saving homeowners a trip to an empty mailbox.
Other products included Sunpax, which looked to place miniature packets of sunscreen in locations where people often forget to bring it, such as amusement parks and outdoor venues. Hasani Umbrellas proposed to create a better, wider, wind-resistant umbrella. And Rising Sun Charger used solar power to create a wireless charger for electronic devices, marketed to hunters, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts.
The Business Incubator Program provides many benefits for students.
"They are learning all kinds of skills that most students don't have an opportunity to gain until they enter the workforce," Powell said. "They're learning how to work as a team, manage personality conflicts, and problem-solve. These are all things you can't look up in a book, but actually have to work through."
Black has enjoyed seeing the students grow as teams and make progress throughout the year.
"They work together on a common goal and get to see a huge product from the beginning to the end," she said.
For school districts looking to implement something similar, Cherie Powell from Big Spring EA provides advice.
• Take time to plan. There are many pieces to think through - who are your coaches, who are your mentors, etc. Who is going to teach marketing, financials, how to create websites and social media pages? "As classroom teachers, we can't be experts in all of that," Powell said.
• Time is of the essence. One of the difficulties the Big Spring High School teachers found was the short, 43-minute period they had to complete the course. "Teams would be making progress, and then the bell would ring," Powell said. "In the real world, you'd work at the problem for a couple hours before going home."
• Recruit diverse students. While teachers may be inclined to involve top-level students only, Powell advises otherwise. "You have to be open-minded, because there are students at all levels who bring something to the class. Just like the real world, not everyone has to be a great scholar to be successful."