By Debbie Adams
Last spring, William Byrd Middle School Tech Ed teacher Ryan Hutchison challenged the eighth grade students in his “Programming Solutions” class to develop a business, research the particulars, and present their ideas to a panel of potential investors. He used this “deeper learning experience” to introduce the students to the business world using the “Shark Tank” TV show concept, renamed at WBMS as “Terrier Kennel.”
This school year a second section of the Programming Solutions class was added to the schedule at WBMS during the fall semester.
For this project, the class divided into five teams, did extensive research to develop five viable companies, and presented their results in a “pitch” to a panel of investors on Dec. 14.
The panel was made up of Roanoke County Public Schools Career and Technical Education Director Jason Suhr, School Board member Tim Greenway, CTE Supervisor Mark Jones, WBMS Assistant Principal John Eggleston, and WBMS Principal Dana Stevens– all of whom were willing to ask difficult questions and offer solid advice. School Board Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely was also on hand with comments and inquiries.
Eighth graders participating included Erica Barton, Nate Buck, Maddy Cale, Cohen Cook, Alyssa Dennis, Jayden Hardy, Miracle Alston, Kara Watkins, Lanaiya Hardy, Aaron Hemming, Sophia Hudson, Daniel Jimenez Vargas, Kailen Rice, Julianna Shampine, Nicholas Sipes, and Ashton Williamson.
Before the program began, Hutchison commended the students in advance for their efforts, saying that he was “extremely proud of them” for undertaking such a challenging assignment.
Each group had prepared a PowerPoint presentation detailing their business concept (products and services), a “business hook” or “pitch” to sell their idea, and a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, plus the results of their research on the need for their particular business, their target market, their competition and how they planned to counter that competition, an overview of their industry at a glance, expected sales and profits, and marketing strategies.
Hutchison had encouraged them to develop a product or service they were “passionate about.” They came up with “Cloudz Comfort,” the “RAM” game, “Baby Gagets,” “Chocolate Gummy Bunnies,” and “Cooking Up.”
The panel of investors had each been given $200,000 to make a deal or deals with the entrepreneurs.
The Cloudz Comfort team was marketing customized high quality children’s hoodies— a vastly expanding market according to their research. One member of the team presented a sample hoodie to the panel for examination, pointing out its features. The group was asking for a $40,000 investment for a 40% stake in the company. Greenway asked where the company would be located and was pleased to hear they planned to set up shop in Vinton. Stevens ultimately made the deal.
Next up were the developers of the “RAM” video game. They reported that the cost to make their game was $9.99; the selling price would be $25. The team was asking for a $15,000 investment for a 15% stake in the company. One team member demonstrated how the game was played on the computer to each potential investor.
When questioned about their target audience for their video game, students told the panel it was appropriate for all age levels. Jones quizzed them on what platforms might best support the game, rather than, or in addition to, the PC platform they planned to use exclusively. He suggested that a mobile app platform might earn a greater profit. Greenway offered them $25,000—more than their asking price.
The third team presented their product—Baby Gagets—a simple play board for young children. They explained that the cost of making their prototype was $36.09 and their asking price would be $45 with a goal of producing 1,440 boards annually. They were offering the investors a 20% stake in the company for an investment of $12,000.
Greenway complimented them on their detailed presentation, reminded them that the cost per unit would decrease over time as they became more efficient, and discussed patents. Jones reminded them of the need for product safety, especially when children are involved. Suhr offered them the deal that they accepted—a $24,000 investment for a 40% stake in the firm.
The Chocolate Gummy Bunnies were up next—to the delight of the panel who were offered a taste of the homemade candy. The team’s plan is to focus on candy for Valentine’s Day and Easter with unique flavors of orange, coconut, cotton candy, and white chocolate. Greenway was again happy that this team planned to open their business in Vinton.
The candy team asked for an investment of $15,000 for a stake of 25%. The cost to make a box of their chocolate gummies had been $3; they planned to sell the box for $5. Their product was so delicious that three panelists made offers. The team accepted the offer from Mr. Eggleston– $50,000 for a 25% stake.
The final team presented their vision of “Cooking Up,” a business which combined a restaurant serving tacos with special seasoning with merchandise—or as one team member described it, “the Mexican version of Cracker Barrel.” They were asking for an investment of $25,000 for a 20% stake.
When told that they also planned to open their restaurant/store in downtown Vinton, Greenway this time questioned the wisdom of their decision, given the number of Mexican restaurants already located in or near the town. He said he feared the market might be oversaturated– and opening a restaurant is an expensive and difficult venture.
The team countered with how unique their business would be, selling not just meals, but merchandise. Several panelists made offers, but the team selected the one from Suhr– $75,000 for a 20% stake, unwilling to give up control of half of their company to Jones who had offered $100,000 for 50% of the company.
In concluding the session, Hutchison reiterated that theirs was not an easy task, and that he, at their age, would probably have looked for an “excuse to stay home” on presentation day. He commended the students for their courage and urged them to maintain their self-confidence as they move on to high school.
He also thanked the panel of investors for taking part in an opportunity which “provided the students with a real-world experience that was invaluable. My hope is the students will take the knowledge imparted today with them to high school level (and beyond).”
Dr. Nicely applauded Hutchison’s efforts “to teach students these important business and life skills. Thank you for having the courage to go above and beyond to give students the opportunity to learn in an authentic way. These kinds of experiences, with feedback, will only serve to inspire and empower them to work harder and rise to the occasion with future opportunities. Each group truly came up with some intriguing ideas. We admire their courage and look forward to seeing what they will do in the future as they continue to work hard and explore possibilities.”
Tim Greenway commented that “Mr. Hutchison does a fantastic job highlighting the opportunities available to these students in the real world.”
“It was great to see students in action, applying what they are learning in their Technology Education class with Mr. Hutchison,” Suhr remarked. “The five student-teams presented some interesting and creative business concepts, and the presentation and judging process were fun to be part of. Mr. Hutchison does a great job with his students at William Byrd Middle School and this project is an example of the creative ways he challenges his students to do hard things.”
Ryan Hutchison spent 15 years working in the corporate world before accepting a position teaching Technology Education at William Byrd Middle School in the fall of 2021. He earned his MBA from Syracuse University and one of his course requirements there was creating a business. In examining the middle school curriculum on business concepts, he decided that the best practice for imparting the knowledge to his students might be through a hands-on, higher level, challenging experience, like Terrier Kennel.