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Eighth graders pitch business ideas in classroom version of "Shark Tank"

shark tank at thomas jefferson middle school
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson

“Shark Tank,” is a popular ABC TV show where contestants pitch business ideas to a group of executives. Recently, the concept found a new home at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in a classroom full of eighth graders.

Students presented their product concepts and business models to a panel of five Jefferson City business leaders who acted as their “Sharks.”

The guidance of eighth grade math teacher Jessica Denkler kept the waves in the “tank” calm.

As her students presented their projects, she guided them every step of the way, even when their nerves overcame them. Denkler said the inspiration for the eighth grade version of the “Shark Tank” came from her curriculum.

“I teach both my algebra and my pre-algebra kids about functions,” Denkler said. “It’s graphing, and it’s making lines, and it’s coming up with costs that are fixed or numbers that are fixed and numbers that are variable. So I got to thinking, you know my kids can do this kind of stuff.”

The day was fast-paced and filled with pressure, and the students got ten minutes each to present their pitch to the “Sharks”—local business leaders. Denkler said students were excited about creating their own ideas to present to their classmates, as well as to the “Sharks.”

“They were excited to think of something themselves,” Denkler said. “To think of their own product that meant a lot to them, and I saw that in the kids’ projects.”

The students’ projects applied creativity to solving problems. Students interested in food products came up with cookie sandwiches and even doggie treats, and ranged from an environmentally friendly lawn mower trimmer head to individual cooling bowls.

Eighth grader Claire Dildy and her partner created the lawn mower trimmer head for their project. Dildy said there were many crucial steps that she took to prepare.

“In class we figured how much it would be to buy all of the parts in bulk, so that we could get it at a discounted price,” Dildy said. “And then we did advertising warehouse cost.”

But Dildy said the creation of her project involved asking her stepdad what a 30-year-old guy would be impressed with.

“And he said, ‘Well it would be something that I could trim faster and easier with. Like a trimmer that could attach to your lawn mower,’ and I said, ‘I can do that. That’s a good idea.’”

Eighth grader Nathan Erickson plays a lot of golf, and has lost a golf ball or two. So, he and his partner Parrish Morris focused their project on creating a golf ball that can be tracked.

“I play golf quite a bit and I thought of this one time and thought this was the perfect opportunity to use this idea,” Nathan said.

When Nathan got the chance to dive into the “Shark Tank,” he found someone familiar to him. It was his dad.

Steven Erickson is the owner and president of Erikson Financial Solutions. As one of the “Sharks” he said this kind of real-world presentation is better than sitting at home doing homework.

“When I went to school I never had to do a presentation,” Erickson said. “I’d show up to class take notes, take a test, go home and do homework. I never had to express the ideas in verbal form, or in front of people.”

Denkler said the Jefferson City Public School district supports the idea of project-based learning. The goal? Making subjects within the classroom real, so that in the future these skills will remain relevant. But, she said above everything, communication skills are the most important.

“Whether that means it’s in math or social studies or whatever it is, just being able to talk to people, you can have the best ideas, but if you can’t get them out to someone else, or you’re too scared to, or you’re just not confident enough it can stifle you if you’re not able to do that,” Denkler said.

Although the tank has been drained, Denkler said the “Shark Tank” was a good experience and learning opportunity for her students.

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