Owen Middle Students Learn Entrepreneurship in Spark Tank Project
On May 16th, Owen Middle School students excitedly filled the school cafeteria, holding boxes filled with baked goods, Tupperwares of homemade slime, and circular tubes adorned with bunched hair ties and eyeglass holders with 3D printed beads on the strings. Yes, these were the creative wares made for a class assignment, yet it wasn’t just any regular class assignment. The students were part of the third installment of an entrepreneurial project spearheaded in 2018 at Asheville Middle School by Social Studies teacher Mrs. Portugal with the support of United Way. In the spring of 2019, United Way moved forward in duplicating this fun and educational Shark Tank spin-off project. Career and Technical Education Teacher Amanda Venturella was on board and tasked her eighth grade Owen Middle War Colts with the exciting prospect of creating their very own businesses and presenting them to a team of local business investors, aka: Sharks, provided by United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County.
“The students were a little lukewarm when I first introduced the idea,” shared Venturella. “It took a couple of weeks for them to realize there was actual money involved. It just didn’t click for a few days. Because we’re at school, I think they thought we were talking about theoretical money, and when I finally said, no, we’re going to hand you your profits in cash once this is over, everybody got really excited.”
Project-Based Learning Meets Community Engagement...
Venturella used this to teach the engineering design process, “because you empathize and question what your consumer wants, then you plan and prototype, revise, and are back at square one.” She said this project was an easy fit as the first nine weeks of her course involves physical computing and building with a micro-computer, rather than virtual code writing in and of itself.” So, you’re writing code and using a temperature sensor or building a trap for an animal or making a safe to keep your belongings...they have a real problem and they figure out how to solve it. There’s a lot of duct tape and LED lights and alligator clips and batteries. It’s physical computing. So this was really nice to go from that into another hands-on project.”
To help explain the process to students, United Way invited three local companies out to the school to pitch to the students, sharing real-world models of the ins-and-outs of successful businesses. Thanks to Jeff Kaplan at Venture Asheville-- Poppy’s Popcorn, Watch Pitch, and 3 Mountains were all on board to open up their business models to the young War Colts. After gleaning business concepts and strategies from these entrepreneurs, the students conducted market research during a weekly Homework Diner facilitated by United Way's Community School Coordinator Josh Wells, before their big pitch day to potential Sharks.
“I come at this from three parts--as a resident of Black Mountain, a business owner, and a parent,” shared Andy Gibbon, Founder of Dynamite Roasting. “The basics of what they’re learning through this program are just so applicable to so many parts of life, whether it’s household budgets or creating a business of their own. They’re learning about the cost of goods versus final price, how to put together a business plan, marketing plans, loans and how to consider using funds. All of those things are easily applied in so many ways in your adult life.”
Making Their Worlds A Little Bigger...
On pitch day, students presented ideas for no-sew blankets, eyeglass cords, and hair ties--functional and fun items they could easily make at home using a minimal amount of money. Potential investors came prepared to place their $50 deposit into one of the student projects. Investors included: Andy Gibbon, Founder of Dynamite Roasting, Emily Breedlove, Founder of Camp Girl Boss, Sheila Christofalos of Edward Jones, Steve Norsworthy and Jason Stone of Emerson, Jeff Slosman of National Wiper Alliance, Hugh Wright of Poppy's Popcorn, and Whitney Zeh of Symetry Financial. The Sharks diligently asked questions as students shared their business plans. “How much does the fleece cost?” one asked. “Have you tried your hand at making one of these yet?” asked another. When the presentations were over, they deliberated before returning to the students to announce their investment decisions. Afterward, students met with their business advisors to discuss their projects further and sign an agreement that they would, in fact, go on to create what they dreamed up.
I sat down with students Laila and Chloe at the bustling Spark Tank Business Fair in the school cafeteria and they excitedly shared the process of creating their hand-held animals made from upcycled fuzzy socks. When asked what it was like designing their product, they said their first one ended up being a failed attempt, but they kept trying and as they did, they became better, and the animals “really funny and cute.” I went on to ask what they felt running a business was like and they said in near unison “It feels really hard...but it depends on who you’re running it with and what you’re doing.”
“Everything like this connects these kids with someone in the community that they would not have come across otherwise, particularly kids who live in poverty and in rural areas…,” shares Venturella passionately. “Everything you do to connect them within the community makes their world a little bit bigger. Every real experience they have. Every place you take them and every person they meet. It’s powerful and it’s so much more powerful than an online simulation or watching a film.”
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Volunteer with coworkers on a project as part of Business United.