• Inc.: U-32 students aim to make a go of business
     | November 08,2012

    Stefan Hard / Staff Photo U-32 teacher George Cook advises the students in his "Inc." class, a project-based learning class that involves students in a complex business venture for an entire semester.

    The 20 students in George Cook’s “Inc.” class at U-32 High School are taking part in a project-based learning opportunity that Principal Keith Gerritt says “is something they can use to be economically viable citizens of not only this country, but the world.”

    Cook, 40, started teaching at U-32 two years ago in the business education department. “One of my favorite things about U-32 is how robust and dynamic the programming is. There’s a lot of opportunity for these kids,” he says.

    Last year, he saw a chance to further that opportunity by incorporating into the curriculum a class based on experiential learning; that is, the students learn not by lecture, but by experience.

    “Inc.,” short for “incorporated,” is a course in entrepreneurship. The goal: to answer the question “how hard is it to start a business?” The students are expected to start a business from scratch and bring it into full operation by the end of the semester.

    Though there have been some sleepless nights for Cook, the pilot class is shaping up to be the first in an established line of courses.

    The “Inc.” class falls into the 21st century learning — or 21st century skills — approach to education, a growing movement that focuses on what some would say is a more holistic approach to teaching and learning. At the core of this movement is the drive to ensure that students learn three skill sets: life and career skills, learning and innovation skills, and information media and technology skills.

    Financial literacy is one of those skills that students (and perhaps a lot of adults) need in order to be successful today. It can be defined as the ability to use knowledge and skills to manage financial resources effectively. In 2003, the Financial Literacy and Education Commission was created to promote a better understanding of finance within the United States.

    U-32 has committed to improving students’ financial literacy and has been rewarded for its efforts. The school was recently awarded two grants — one for $15,000 from Discover and the other valued at $26,500 from the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College.

    Student William Odell-Monley says about the class, “I think it’s pretty cool. I think it’s interesting and certainly different than anything else I’ve ever done before. It seems to be going really well so far. I think it’ll be fun to start selling.”

    The doing-by-learning concept in business education is not new by any means. For example, Babson College and Northeastern University’s business school have offered courses much like “Inc.” for years. But implementing the idea in a Vermont high school classroom is considered an advance in education.

    In 2008, a survey by Jump$tart — a nonprofit coalition of organizations dedicated to improving the financial literacy of U.S. youth — found that 48.3 percent of U.S. high school students could be considered financially literate. “Inc.” is part of the push to increase that number.

    The students in this semester, mostly seniors, have chosen to make and sell a product as their business. (The alternative would be to provide a service.) Their goal is to have a full line of T-shirts to sell by semester’s end — long sleeves, short sleeves, cotton and tech T’s, all with U-32 graphics. So far they’ve drawn up a mission statement, designed and printed their own “Inc.” T-shirts they wear to class, and have started working on market research within the school to determine how many designs they will be printing.

    “Sometimes I feel I have to rein them in,” says Cook. “They’re very, very excited. And that’s common when a student is really into something that they’re learning.”

    But the students have a lot of work ahead of them as they go from concept to raising capital, designing, marketing, advertising, promoting, accounting, selling and distributing the final product. Last week they learned they would be hearing a sales pitch from a local screen-printing business. “You guys should be excited, you’re in demand,” Cook told his students.

    The students sit in teams around large oval tables in their newly renovated classroom, working on marketing, advertising, sales, and finance and accounting tasks. Thanks to the Discover grant, the school was able to upgrade the room, install high-speed wireless Internet and outfit the “company” with a top-of-the-line projector and laser jet printer, as well as new laptops.

    The classroom is more like an office with the tables in place of desks, and the focus is on collaborative effort among the teams, with their respective responsibilities, to get the job done.

    “The cool thing about project-based learning is my role in this,” says Cook. “I need to let them learn. I can’t jump in there and save them every time I know that they might be headed in the wrong direction. I think that it would be wrong if I gave it to them, because one of the missions of the class is: This is how you learn. Sometimes a lot of work needs to be redone.”

    The other benefit to experiential learning is that it effectively teaches students who have diverse learning styles. As Gerritt says, “The beauty of the program is that it services the needs of all students. Kids are savvy. They know they’re not just competing with graduates from Montpelier, or even Vermont, or even the U.S. — they’re competing with kids from all over the globe. They look at something like ‘Inc.’ and see that it is exactly what they need to be prepared to go out and get a job or be successful in college.”

    Kathryn Eddy is a writer and researcher living in Braintree.

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