With entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk becoming household names, entrepreneurship makes a great hook to get students excited about STEM learning. Even the youngest learners can come up with ideas for products that can change the world. Add the aspect of competition, such as that featured in the pitch show Shark Tank, and you can reach every learner in class.
There is a lot more that goes into being an entrepreneur than just ideas. Guiding students through the various processes of bringing a product to market can touch all of STEM education and entrepreneurship, making a Shark Tank lesson an ideal interdisciplinary project. You can bring the entrepreneurship feeling to life if you have experience working in a project-based learning environment and/or your school has a makerspace.
Here is a sequence of lessons that you can trim to fit your students’ capabilities and your discipline, culminating in your own Shark Tank-like pitch competition:
The Ideation Phase
When getting the ball rolling on this sequence, the first thing you are likely to hear from students is “I can’t come up with any good ideas.” If you feel as though they need inspiration, give a brief talk about famous inventors like Leonardo da Vinci. Remind your students that inventors and entrepreneurs take action because they want to solve a problem, then ask them to brainstorm (solvable) problems that annoy them. After that, the kids may have too many choices for products.
You may find the students getting bogged down making all the little decisions that come with bringing a product to market. Have them conduct a survey, online or otherwise, that can ask things like what color the product should be and how much someone would pay for it. They can share it with a small sample size of adults in their lives or other students. This is a great way to work in some statistics concepts and even a brief intensive on how to use a spreadsheet program.
Planning & Budgeting
If you’ve seen Shark Tank, you know that contestants are often bombarded with questions about costs, sales, margin, and other financial and mathematical figures. This is another chance to explore numeracy, and students can make predictions to research these costs. No need to get bogged down in the details. Even younger students can work with basic financial concepts; just be sure to use more visuals and less Excel tables.
Detailed Design and/or Build Out
It’s time to design the product in as detailed a way as possible. For older students and those with access to a stocked makerspace, this could mean using CAD to make actual schematics. For younger students, crayons, recyclables, and construction paper are fine. Whether you require the students to make the product is up to their maturity, time, and the available materials. There have been plenty of successful pitches attempted with only blueprint-style designs.
You will want at least three “sharks.” They can be older students, teachers, administrators, or volunteer parents. In fact, a mix could yield the most interesting results as long as they are committed to providing detailed feedback on the products. Negotiations about money and equity are optional. You can also use a judging model in which companies are ranked rather than bought. Whether you count the results against the students’ grades for the project is up to you. But again, failure and perseverance can be the best shapers of a student’s potential, so reward effort above all.
With planning, you can expose students to an interdisciplinary project that touches all facets of STEM education and entrepreneurship.
Scott Sterling is an education commentator and journalist. He spent 5 years teaching English in Title I middle and high schools in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is an advocate for equity and gifted education.