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February 22, 2016

How My 8- and 9-Year-Old Students Became Entrepreneurs

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How can we make core academics come to life? We teachers continually ask ourselves this question as we design curricula. And this question led my class to harness math skills and the enterprising spirit of our city. They became entrepreneurs.

My 8- and 9-year-old students just finished a project where they designed their own companies from the ground up. Students built and pitched business plans, conducted market research,  “manufactured” their products, positioned and priced their offerings, and eventually sold them in a marketplace, where adults (with real money!) bought their products. Students also learned the art of giving, as their profits went to a charity of their choice.

But they learned so much more than being business owners. They applied core math skills, they learned from the failures and successes of real Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and they drove their own business decisions. Here’s a deep dive into what they learned:

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Mastering 2nd and 3rd Grade Math Skills Through Real-Life Scenarios

By the end of 2nd and 3rd grade, students need to master the following core math skills:

  • Performing fundamental math operations, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • Calculating money, knowing the value of bills and change, and making change from larger sums
  • Manipulating fractions and understanding decimals
  • Producing bar and line graphs and analyzing data

Many of these skills need to become second nature, like telling time. To master these skills within their project, students:

  • Calculated the cost of their raw materials, margin, and projected profit and loss. Based on their calculations, they decided how to calibrate their production in order to maximize margin.
  • Practiced physically counting money and change. Some memorized certain transactions so they could quickly serve their customers.
  • Graphed data from a class-wide market research survey and interpreted that data, to understand which products to make.

They applied these core math skills in the context of growing their businesses. Memorizing math operations wasn’t just about memorizing; math had utility.

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Learning from Real-Life Entrepreneurs

A magical thing happened when I told families that we were studying entrepreneurship: parents lined up to volunteer and share their experiences in business with the class.

During our morning meetings, several parents led sessions on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. Students asked questions like, “What happens if my business fails?” “What happens if some of my products do not sell well?” and “How do we know what to sell in the first place?” We heard real stories about failure, trying again, and grit. We learned the importance of diversifying to find the right product-market fit. And we learned how to conduct market research, from structuring survey questions to graphing the data.

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Developing Ownership over One’s Learning Process

When it came to select projects, one student baked cookies, another sewed handbags, and another framed photos he took himself. By choosing something they were interested in, students had a vested interest in their success..

I asked one my students, “What was the hardest part of this project?”

"The hardest part was figuring out how many Rice Krispie treats to make and sell at the market. If I made too many, I’d lose money. If I didn’t make enough, I could’ve made more profit. So I asked my teachers how many people would be at the market. They said about 40. I thought that not everyone would buy Rice Krispies, so I decided to make about 20. I think I was right, I sold out right at the end."

I love how his answer shows how he both identified and solved a problem in order to meet his goals—crucial skills for the 21st century.

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Giving Back to the Community

My students were so proud of their individual and collective contributionsincluding making $365 to donate to The World Wildlife Fund.

Mary-Kate Murphy is an educator at AltSchool Alamo Square. She is dedicated to igniting curiosity and a love of learning through real-world experiences.

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