A Sioux Falls high school has its own Shark Tank.
Well, close enough anyway. Lindsey Keiper’s class of freshman at New Technology High School are learning algebra in a new way.
Would you be interested in buying PetJ’s – matching pajamas for you and your pet? Or how about Charge-to-Wake, a portable pillow that includes a charging port for your phone?
Keiper’s students come up with potential products, work out their financials and refine their approaches, and then pitch their products to a group of adults.
The approach mirrors the ABC television show “Shark Tank,” which features entrepreneurs from around the country who pitch their product, company and business plan to the “Sharks,” a battery of celebrity entrepreneurs who may or may not invest in the proposed products.
The show is famous for its hard questions. Entrepreneurs rarely escape the Shark Tank without some bites.
Keiper came up with the idea of a Shark Tank-style competition while she considered how to teach one of the standards for algebra: learning systems of equations (basically finding the solution of where two lines intersect).
“So for that standard, I knew I wanted to do something related to expenses and revenue,” she said. “And I love ‘Shark Tank,’ so why not?”
Students in Keiper’s class examine their day-to-day life and think of things that are missing or are poorly designed. Then they brainstorm together to come up with ideas, do market research by looking at possible competition and conduct community surveys.
Clint Brown, a business consultant with Alluvio who is active in the local entrepreneur community, got involved with the Shark Tank project after he toured New Tech High and was “really floored.” He asked if he could be involved in any way.
He’s now in his third year serving as a Shark for the algebra class. The past two years, he’s also volunteered to help the students work on their projects and prepare them for their final presentation. That they are 9th graders doesn’t mean the students don’t take their work seriously, Brown said.
“I’m shocked at the level of engagement of the students and their professionalism,” he said.”
He approaches working with the kids using the Socratic method: lots of questions. How did they do their research? How do they know their math is right? How are they working together?
In some cases, he provides some helpful feedback for somewhat unlikely products. One student came up with the idea for a Roomba trashcan that would cost $800 to build.
“My question was, ‘I would be curious how many families in Sioux Falls would be willing to spend more than $800 on a trashcan,'” Brown said.
Some of the ideas remain conceptual, while other students build prototypes of their products, including using the 3-D printer on the high school’s campus.
“I tell them, I’m not going to discount their grade if they don’t have a prototype, but always having something for us to look like will always improve their performance, whether it’s paper, cardboard or a design on their computer.”
Shark Tank pitches
Some of the ideas in this round of Keiper’s class, with their descriptions:
- Plum: “The ‘Plum’ is a luminescent pen that has an LED on it and lights up the page you are writing on you can take the led holder off and move it to another pen or pencil.
- Crab Cracker: “This amazing product will allow you to crack your crab but instead of your crab meat falling, are product catches the meat so there is no mess.”
- Snack Trap: “The Snack Trap is a mechanism that allows you to keep your snack/meal safe. The Snack Trap is a safe that is able to keep your snack inside, and safe, so you don’t have to.”
- Handy Reach: “Description: An extendable and retractable arm that you attach to the your forearm using velcro strapping that lets you just to the width of your arm and mimics the movement of the fingers to be able to grip objects at longer distances. (Also able to be customizable to the consumer.)”
- Defensive Bracelet: “The defensive Bracelet is a comfortable bracelet that makes you and everyone around you feel safe. he bracelet contacts your friends and family at the push of a button.”
- Backpidi: “Back pain sucks. Especially with backpacks causing it. Introducing Backpidi! A backpack that follows you around, like a drone! No arms required! This product would put your back at ease, and may prevent problems in the future.”
Students practice for the Shark Tank presentation in class, before their peers and then before upperclassmen who have taken the same class. Then, they get ready for the Sharks.
Will Bushee knows the program well. He’s both a regular Shark and his daughter is in Keiper’s class. Bushee, a businessman and entrepreneur himself, says he’s regularly impressed with the idea the students pitch.
“I’m always amazed,” he said. “These are freshmen in high school coming up with these ideas, and some of them are as good or better
than what comes up at Startup Weekend.”
So far none of the students’ ideas have moved past the conceptual or prototype phase, Bushee said.
“But you know what? we do encourage the kids to move it forward,” Bushee said. “Some of (the ideas) are raw, some of them are actually legit ideas.”
Algebra can be a relatively unloved subject for a lot of high school students. But Brown said the Shark Tank concept is algebra brought to life.
“I think every kid has questioned, ‘Why do I ever need to learn this,'” he said.
But the Shark Tank-style approach?
“It’s probably the most real-world, applicable use of the basics of algebra I’ve ever seen any school do,” he said. “They have to defend their understanding of how they got to their math, and it’s packaged in this competition of fun ideas.”
Bushee is no stranger to the business of teaching kids. He was a co-founder of Code Academy and Hack Sioux Falls, programs that aim to give kids real-world skills in coding and problem-solving.
“There’s just so much creativity with kids nowadays and there’s no platform to express it,” Bushee said, “So what New Tech is doing is fantastic and that’s what we’re trying to do with our programs as well.”
Keiper’s Shark Tank project for her class fits perfectly within New Tech High’s project-based learning program, said Principal Dolly Ellwein.
“This project has always been a favorite of mine because it’s a great real-world example that connects to their algebra content, and I love how many community partners Lindsey is always able to bring in to give feedback to the students and listen to their ideas,” she said.
New Tech High is part of the Sioux Falls School District, but it’s also part of a national network of schools called the New Tech Network. The mission: to make content that is taught applicable to the real world.
“For me, it’s just fun to go to the presentations and see all the ideas they come up with and hear what the sharks have to say. They really grill the kids sometimes, which is awesome,” Ellwein said. “It’s great experience for the students, to be able to present in kind of a high-stakes environment. They’re developing skills as freshmen that most of us didn’t develop until we were out in the business world.”
Brown credits Keiper for coming up with the idea and pursuing it for the benefit of her students, despite the extra work it undoubtedly takes.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “I think it’s a brave step for a teacher to put this much time into something that isn’t required of her, in the hopes that math is more relatable for her students.”
South Dakota generally has low per-capita filings for new patents. So Brown said it’s important to encourage creative, inventive people to learn at a young age how to come up with an idea, even if the end up failing.
“People need to understand, these are just 14-year-olds learning math,” Brown said. “It’s no one’s job to be critical, but to help them be better thinkers. There are long-term impacts that our state and city could really use.”