The stakes are very high the day I visit Deb Christenson’s Modern U.S. History class. Seven groups of students will present ideas for a start-up to a panel of Wildwood teachers and administrators—including me. Judging each plan based on a presentation, we’ll decide which student-led start-up has the greatest potential for financial success. We’re also here to make money—risking our own wealth as potential investors in the next billion-dollar business idea.
Sounds like Shark Tank, the trending TV reality show. But, it’s really the culminating event in a project, combining a study of U.S. economic history, entrepreneurship, and design thinking. (So, while our wealth isn’t real, we ‘sharks’ are here to lend authenticity to the proceedings.)
Each student group pitches their idea for a novel product or service. Maddy G. and Abby L. unveil Equilibrus—a start-up that synthesizes the ‘buy one, give one’ model of Tom’s Shoes with an online book store, donating books to a local public school for every title purchased through their service. Sunscreen Sprayers is the brainchild of Georgie M. and Anna R. Their business builds and distributes mobile sunscreen application booths that beachgoers or amusement park visitors use for a small fee, paid for through a smartphone app. Other students promote their visions: an environmentally sustainable restaurant; a mobile phone app to book babysitters; and an urban garden design service, are among the contenders.
At Wildwood and in other U.S. History courses, studying American entrepreneurs is pretty much standard fare. But today at Wildwood, there’s also an emphasis on teaching entrepreneurship—an added value of guiding students in developing their own entrepreneurial skills, to help them learn and lead in our complex, evolving world.
This year, Deb added design thinking to the equation to create the “Shark Tank” project—something new to her own teaching repertoire. Inspired after hearing Stanford Design School professor Tina Selig speak at a conference, Deb became intrigued by the idea of applying Selig’s approach to her Wildwood classroom. Deb read some of Selig’s books, watched her TEDTalks, and synthesized design thinking into a project for her course’s final unit—on the development of the modern U.S. economy.
“I’ve always been interested in designing authentic, performance-based projects for my students,” Deb tells me. “And the “Shark Tank” idea seemed to bring together that interest and design thinking.” So when starting this project, Deb’s students follow the design thinking process—defining a problem that needs solving, considering and creating a variety of solutions, and refining them. To execute their start-up each group spells out some essentials— including a mission statement, along with plans to address marketing, finance, and management.
After the final presentation, my fellow ‘sharks’ and I head to the room next door to deliberate and choose the winning idea.
After a lively debate, we ‘sharks’ agree to award $50K in mock seed money to Benji M. and Owen L. Their start-up idea: Pythagoras Computing. It’s a service that allows scientific researchers to purchase computing power from individuals’ idle laptops and other personal electronic devices—power that would otherwise be wasted. In true Wildwood fashion, Benji and Owen’s classmates congratulate them on hearing the news, with applause and high-fives.
Shark Tank, the TV show, is all about innovation, ideas and investment—the principles of entrepreneurship that Wildwood embraces. What’s more, at Wildwood many student projects pass on the additional value of focusing on social and environmental goals. So welcome to the “Shark Tank” Wildwood-style: Collaboration is competitive.
~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning