Fifth-Graders with a Startup Business? You Betcha

By Serena Dai on January 23, 2013 5:33pm 

LAKEVIEW — Move aside, Mark Zuckerberg. Look out, Harvard.

The next young entreprenuers might just be alumni of Nettelhorst Elementary School in East Lakeview. At least that's what organizers of a program encouraging invention and business savvy hope students take away.

Nettelhorst, 3252 N. Broadway Ave., is home to a pilot program called SEE Chicago where students learn how to invent products and sell them with help from real world professionals and Northwestern University engineering students.

The goal of the program: To inspire students to create their own career one day and how science and engineering can be used to do it.

"It’s preparing kids for jobs that haven’t even been discovered yet," said Julieanne Van Fleet, a fifth grade teacher whose class is part of the pilot. "This program shows them that you don’t have to fit into a specific career mode or path. You can have an idea and do something about it."

Van Fleet, fellow Nettelhorst teachers Michelle Gunderson and John Nieciak, Northwestern engineering professor Mike Beltran and marketing consultant and Nettelhorst volunteer Ted Ganchiff have been collaborating to create a curriculum that could one day serve as a model for other Chicago Public School, university and business partnerships. 

Last year, fourth graders in Gunderson's class learned how molds and plastics work by experiments such as drying glue with a hairdryer or using chocolate molds from local shop Windy City Sweets.

Experiments like this drive home how mechanical engineering and manufacturing translates into everyday items, said Beltran.

"You learn exactly how that Lego you play with is made," he said.

By the end of the year, the fourth graders had invented five different products, from a Swiss army knife with utensils instead of knives, to a purple pencil holder that combined the Northwestern and Nettelhorst logos. Northwestern engineering students then created plastic molds for the products as part of an undergraduate class assignment for Beltran.

This year, the business aspect started: Van Fleet's fifth grade class visited Northwestern to survey students as market research to create a sales plan for a potential pencil case, the most sales-ready product of the last year's prototype. 

They consulted with local product designers Beyond Design to learn about trends and patterns in the industry, deciding that this year's pencil case will be more mobile than last year's.

By April, they should be presenting to area angel investors and entrepreneurs from local start-up incubator Catapult Chicago, the minds behind Mentor Mob, who will give them feedback.

And if the students fail to sell the pencil cases, that's all the better as a lesson in how the world works, said Ganchiff.

"There's sort of this overriding sense that there's this mysterious adult world where people have all the answers," said Ganchiff, whose son is in the 5th grade at the school. "That's incorrect. Every day, people are making it up as they go, and I want to demystify this for kids."

Beltran has already applied for grants from the National Science Foundation to extend the program to Graeme Stewart Elementary School and William C. Goudy Elementary School in Uptown.

Ultimately, the crew envisions it starting in the 2nd grade and building up until the 8th grade, with businesses and Northwestern collaborating with teachers the whole way.

"We realize that our classroom is not in a vacuum,” Nieciak said.

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