By Debbie Adams
Ryan Hutchison spent 15 years working in the corporate world before accepting a position teaching Technology Education at William Byrd Middle School last fall. He has brought that business world experience to his eighth grade “Programming Solutions” class with a unit on business based on the Shark Tank TV show concept.
Shark Tank features entrepreneurs making business presentations to a panel of investors (the Sharks) who decided whether to invest in the company or product.
The WBMS version was renamed “Terrier Kennel.” The judges included School Board member and business owner Tim Greenway, Roanoke County Schools Director of Career and Technical Education Jason Suhr, CTE Supervisor Mark Jones, and WBMS School Counseling Coordinator Lubeth Jones.
Twenty-eight students divided into seven groups participated in the project. They employed the business practices that Hutchison had taught them to develop their own businesses (on paper) for presentation to the potential investors—the judges.
The competition was held in the William Byrd Middle School auditorium—Hutchison wanted a professional setting for the activity with students dressed professionally as well. Student groups had a minute and a half to present their business concepts and then faced questions from the judges, who had reviewed the business reports beforehand.
Each judge had $500,000 to invest but winning wasn’t the focus—finding out who would and wouldn’t get investments was what the students wanted to know.
In a mere two weeks, the students had come up with a written report on their business which included 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, the roles of company officers and employees, and marketing strategies.
Hutchison gave them some resources for research, in particular the ISIS (Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers) tool for data analysis used by major corporations and universities.
He encouraged them to choose something they were passionate about in creating a business. The seven businesses formed were two pet grooming companies, a rocket company, chair company, sports marketing company, 3D printing company, and headphone company.
The class watched some episodes of Shark Tank and did a run-through before the actual competition—to build communication skills and confidence—one of the most important take aways Hutchison wanted for them.
Hutchison 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, such as his.
He says that his thesis in teaching is “Tell me something and I may forget it; teach me something and I may remember it; but involve me in something and I’m going to learn it.”
The business plans developed and presented by the eighth graders at WBMS were impressive, to say the least. The depth of detail, the understanding of business concepts, and the knowledge of the business world they gained in the assignment were described by Tim Greenway at the School Board meeting the day of the event, as “amazing and awesome. It was truly one of the best experiences I have experienced in a classroom—unbelievable, and the kids seemed to love it.”
Suhr commented, “This is the standard we want to be striving for. These types of activities push students out of their comfort zone and engage students in purposeful, real-life planning and development tasks. The learning is not limited to textbooks or worksheets but is an application of what the students are learning in class. Not only do the students apply the content knowledge they are learning in class, they also stretch themselves by presenting concepts on a stage in front of strangers–this is no small ‘ask’ of a middle school student and they did a very nice job! It was a pleasure to participate in the culminating event of Mr. Hutchison’s excellent work with his students!”
The Terrier Kennel activity is the quintessential deeper learning activity that Roanoke County has been emphasizing for several years.
“The Shark Tank activity is not only fun for the students, it exemplifies the kind of deeper learning experiences that we want to be the norm for our students in all their classes,” said Roanoke County School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely. “Students have to think critically and creatively, collaborate on their pitch, and communicate effectively to win funding from the sharks.”
Hutchison plans to continue the project with future classes. He should have plenty of opportunity, according to guidance counselor Lubeth Jones.
“We are so happy Ryan joined the WBMS family this year,” Jones said. “He is a first-year teacher who came from the corporate technology world. He has brought passion and lots of new ideas to help students learn STEM. The students have told me his classes are their favorites and they have learned so much while having fun at the same time.”
Hutchison describes his technology education classes as “fun, but not easy.” His spacious classroom is filled with projects built by students—a wind turbine, a model of the Golden Gate Bridge, a moving paper robot, the makings of a business assembly line—built from the students’ imagination, after research, not from blueprints.
He teaches five classes—sixth and seventh grade introductions to Technology Education, Programming Solutions for eighth grade, STEM, and Digital Imaging.
He sees this type of business-creating, hands-on project as an opportunity for students to get a glimpse forward into the real world of work, to see what their parents might encounter day to day. He says he considers it his job to “get students ready for the real world, and real-world situations– and how to handle them. Some will be starting to work in high school in a few short years. They need to know what to expect.”
That’s why, in part, little emphasis was placed on actually winning the competition. Hutchison wanted the students to learn some life lessons—not to get discouraged if they didn’t receive an offer from the investors, don’t give up, persevere—another opportunity always awaits.
Another incentive for the project was the fact that it counted as a big part of their grade for the course.
Hutchison is the kind of teacher you always wanted to have—fun and engaging, but with high expectations.
He sees his classes as a way to combine the skills students have learned in English, math, science, and history classes with hands-on activities.
Although this is his first year in teaching, he has worked with and mentored students for several years through coaching. He is a graduate of Glenvar High School and coached football at Salem High. He has now been named as head football coach at WBMS.
“I get up each day excited about coming to work,” Hutchison says. “How many can say that?”
He says he has found his forte and plans to stay.