Luke Meyer had always been a creative and imaginative kid. He loved to take things apart and put them back together and even launched his own woodworking and glass engraving business.
In school, though, his passions didn’t always translate. By the time he reached his freshman year at Neenah High School, he felt disengaged and didn’t apply himself.
That began to change when he stumbled upon the school’s Arete Academy, a project-based learning school within a school for freshmen and sophomores. It focuses on the four core subject areas while also developing skills requested in the business community. For Meyer, it proved life-changing.
“I believe school needs to be passion-based, just because you retain the information you think is important,” he says. “If you can apply math, English, your core subjects to what you may want to do in the future or to a project that’s meaningful to you, then you’re going to retain that information.”
That experience led him to an apprenticeship at Neenah’s Innovative Machining, LLC and to INCubatoredu, an entrepreneurship curriculum launched at Neenah High School last fall.
Meyer, a 17-year-old senior, and teammate Jordan Setterstrom, who graduated, went on to win the school’s pitch competition with their product, CordClip, which is designed to preserve the structural integrity of smartphone chargers.
The class took Meyer and his peers through all the phases of product development, from ideation to branding to marketing to learning about patents and legal matters. Meyer and Setterstrom worked with the Fox Valley Technical College Fab Lab to create prototypes and Menasha Corp. to develop packaging solutions.
Neenah High School was the first in the state to purchase the program, which got its start in Barrington, Ill., and is now offered in high schools across the country. A teacher serves as a facilitator, but business leaders are the most important teachers in the program, says Amy Barker, executive director of Future Neenah and designated community champion for INCubatoredu.
“They really took it seriously and had a lot of passion behind their ideas,” she says. “They were living and breathing it, and I think part of the inspiration behind that was they were dealing with authentic professionals that were inspiring them along the way.”
Barker praises the way the program teaches students the value of failing fast and failing often and says it sends kids the message that Northeast Wisconsin is a place that supports them and provides an environment for their ideas to grow. Next year, Neenah High School will offer phase 2 of the program, called Accelerator, and Meyer will continue to develop CordClip.
Entrepreneurship education is built into the DNA of Horace Mann High School in North Fond du Lac. Last fall, teacher Kurt Wismer transformed his marketing class into an INCubatoredu class at the last minute. The program enjoyed robust community support from the economic development organization Envision Greater Fond du Lac and area businesses.
The winners of Fond du Lac’s competition took home $2,000 for their product called C-Ball, a reflective spray that’s applied to golf balls and paired with special glasses. It’s designed to prevent golfers from losing their balls. The winning team secured commitments from retailers to stock the product on their shelves.
“What was great about it is that they quickly learn that feedback is a gift,” says Wismer, a business, marketing and IT instructor. “Getting kids to embrace and understand that mindset is really important. Don’t fall in love with the solution; fall in love with the problem.”
INCubator is one of seven businesses the school offers through its Oriole Ventures program. Others include a computer repair services company, a student-run café and a web development company for area businesses.
“You can’t get better real-world experience for those kids,” Horace Mann Principal Samantha McGill-Freimund says of Oriole Ventures.
For McGill-Freimund, it’s all about creating career pathways. The school has set a goal of having 100 percent of its graduating classes leave school career ready.
This summer, 21 high school students from the Sheboygan and Milwaukee areas participated in Lakeland University’s first-ever Academy for Aspiring Entrepreneurs. Students developed business plans, toured area companies and participated in the Muskie Tank competition, inspired by Shark Tank pitch competitions.
Brittani Meinert, a hospitality management instructor for Lakeland who oversaw the program, says it helped participants develop soft skills, hone their public speaking abilities and learn to work collaboratively.
“I think this time in their lives is critical,” she says. “They’re going to start thinking about what lies ahead for them after high school.”
April Xiong of Plymouth High School was part of the team that won for its idea of a self-watering pot for plants. She says the experience helped prepare her for what comes next. “It was basically a fast-paced version of what they do in college, and it helped me better define what I want to do.”
The Green Bay Area Public School District is looking to help even the youngest kids define what they want to do. Aldo Leopold Community School, which encompasses 4K through eighth grade, is partnering with Green Bay Southwest High School to launch programming around innovation and entrepreneurship in the 2019-2020
Aldo Leopold, a school built around hands-on learning and learning by doing, plans to create programs for elementary school learners, possibly structured around a charter grant. Ideally, students will come out confident in what they know and open to finding out what they don’t, says Aldo Leopold Principal Trina Lambert.
Green Bay Southwest is working toward district and school board approval for a school of innovation it would like to roll out next school year. It would be built around the school’s existing Career and Technology Education program and incorporate entrepreneurship practices, STEAM (STEM plus art) principles and best practices in education, says Southwest Principal Rod Bohm.
“We want to be able to not only give our kids the very best, but then also give our community the best and strengthen our community for years down the road,” he says.
Lambert echoes this.
“Northeast Wisconsin is such a great place because we do have a really strong entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s always kind of just under the radar, but it exists here,” she says. “The more we can tie into that, it’ll be good not only for the students, but I think it’ll be great for our community as well.”