Everyone that has experienced a traditional high school Economics course not doubtably has fond memories of opportunity cost and supply & demand (said no one ever). However, it is clear that with the shift of the educational world towards 21st Century skills and deeper learning, courses like Economics seem to remain stagnate in their approach. I was blessed as a high school social studies teacher at New Tech Academy in Fort Wayne, IN and now as a school administrator at New Technology High School in Napa, California, to experience first hand how entrepreneurial efforts can drastically change the way students experience economics first hand.
Now first and foremost, I know the constraints of staffing, master schedules, and standards can seem as a barrier to implementing an entrepreneurship program at your school. What I do know is clear, is there is a beautiful marriage that already exists between the entrepreneurial spirit and what happens in an economics classroom. Through project-based learning, and thinking outside the box, we were able to open up our students to a whole new world of possibilities. Here is a quick recipe for how it was done:
Brainstorm and Foundations
When the idea for blowing-up the traditional Economics course came about, I knew that I could not do it alone. In today’s world, most communities already have a strong network of entrepreneurs and think tanks that can be tapped into. Fort Wayne, IN is no stranger to this. Resources such as the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, Founders, and In partnership with Steve Franks and Jamal Robinson, of Believe in a Dream, we began to build the framework for our program, “Believe in Your Business“. Essentially, we took the traditional business plan competition, married it with the principles of the lean start-up movement, and embedded it in the curriculum of an 18 week Economics course. The semester long “entrepreneurship” Economics course was born! We decided that it was important to start with 4 questions to help the students ensure their idea really could be a business they could execute:
- Is it doable?
- Am I passionate about it?
- Do I have the resources?
- Does it make my world a better place?
Now after I had the 18 weeks sketched out, it was important to create opportunities for the entrepreneurial mindset to be brought out in my students. I was blessed that New Tech Academy’s school culture stands second to none, but it was vital that the foundation for approaching such a large and real project was something the students were prepared for mentally. It would be hard, it would be messy, but it would be real.
What About the Standards?
Now the educator in me knew that we had a strong foundation, but I keep going back to the question, “What about the standards?”. We had made it a clear goal to make sure that students did not miss out on any key economic concepts that they would experience in a traditional setting (whether it be from micro, macro, or international economics). Utilizing the project-based learning design elements I learned from the New Tech Network, and McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design, I began to work backwards from what the final product would look like and created a road map to get the students to that point. It was clear that the framework an entrepreneur uses to turn an idea into a company (resources like Co.Starters, The Lean Startup, Business Model Generation, and The Startup Owner’s Manual were vital in creating this course) and the phases of project-based learning fit perfectly together. Within the confines of a REGULAR economics course, we were going to be able to dive completely into becoming entrepreneurs.
Scaffold and Support
The principles of design thinking outlined by IDEO and Stanford’s d.school guided our thinking throughout the course of our work. How could we build empathy? How could we turn our idea into an actual business? Prototype. Prototype. Prototype. These principles were integrated into the framework for our 18 week program: 6 three week phases. These phases allowed us to naturally grow our business ideas while still testing them and revising them over time.
Along with creating a scaffolding structure that would support trial and error and growth, it was key that we created a system of support. In this, we elicited a network of mentors to work with the businesses. From the community, we got around 20 mentors to work with the groups throughout the semester. These were small-business owners, inventors, lawyers, bankers, marketing experts, and so on. Instead of creating a one-on-one mentorship, we decided that having every mentor touch every group multiple times would deepen the context in which the students were examining their ideas. This network was vital to raising questions and taking the students in directions I could have never imagined.
At the end of the day, all of the business walked out of the course learning all of the key economic principles they would have in any regular Econ course. We covered scarcity, GDP, market structures, and barriers to trade. BUT, we did it in a format that was REAL and we did it while getting our hands MESSY creating an actual business. Each business walked out with a 30+ page business plan (adapted from the sections of the Business Model Canvas) and publicly presented their idea a half dozen times. All businesses presented their proposals to our “Shark Tank” of investors and 5 groups were selected to present their business in the finals.
Now, I was not prepared for the intensity that would ensue in the weeks before the semi-finals and finals. The amount of detail and preparation that went into tweaking their business plans and pitches was far beyond anything I had seen. Groups came early, stayed late, and worked deep into their free time to make sure they walked away with the prize. What was that prize you ask? Two groups were awarded with seed money to move forward, legal and accounting services to get started, an outlet to begin working as a company, and most importantly, relationships. Relationships that would help guide them long after the class was over and graduation had commenced.
Weaver Wear and Mallow Guard are two examples of these student-led ventures that are now bonafide businesses. Weaver Wear just recently met with the CEO of Parkview Health, one of the largest hospital networks in Indiana, to review their product design and the needs of the hospital. Mallow Guard was just recently at the largest outdoor and camping convention in northern Indiana to display their product. These are real companies that have forever changed the lives of the students involved.
Not every school has the resources to launch a self-sustaining entrepreneurship or innovation program. It is clear though that there is already an existing platform for entrepreneurship to thrive in: high school economics. Rethinking the way that I taught economics was not an easy task. It required me to shift my mindset, dive deep into my content, and develop a pathway for economics and entrepreneurship to grow together. However, as the Believe in Your Business program has grown from just New Tech Academy to now open to high schoolers throughout northeast Indiana and even to other New Tech schools, it is clear that it can be done and students deserve the opportunity to experience economics through a different lens.