Student-Led Businesses Learn Through Entrepreneurship

By Molly Blankenship, Vice President of Talent Initiatives, Chattanooga Chamber

In Hamilton County Schools, technology labs are bustling with students designing and manufacturing custom products. And they’re open for business.

Through a partnership with Hamilton County Schools, the State of Tennessee and the Public Education Foundation, Volkswagen Group of America has installed 16 digital fabrication labs in local public schools. The VW eLabs give students access to new technologies and tools, inspire authentic learning opportunities and allow them to build problem-solving skills through project-based learning and design challenges. The rapid prototyping technologies students can access include CNC routers, laser cutters, vinyl cutters, 3D-printers and micro-electronics.

With the help of Real World Scholars, a nonprofit providing students and teachers with the legal and logistical tools to explore entrepreneurship, a few student-teacher groups are running fully-operational businesses in the Volkswagen eLabs at their schools.

Here’s how it works: students create a business plan and maneuver through complex decisions similar to what a small business owner would face - from product design and manufacturing to marketing and e-commerce. Throughout the experience, students are naturally exposed to learning opportunities and cultivate authentic problem-solving skills. Proceeds from each business are reinvested into the eLabs to purchase more tools and materials.

In each of these student-led businesses, the Real World Scholars model is implemented in the VW eLabs in different ways. At Dalewood Middle School, students running Dalewood Developers create and sell apparel and accessories. Howard Inc. students design, manufacture and sell apparel, along with stickers and custom awards and plaques. Bee You, which started at Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences, manufactures and sells lip balm.

For students and teachers, these businesses are about more than having fun and making money. Students access innovative project-based learning opportunities and have the ability to take ownership of a business from idea conception to the sale of a physical product. They develop essential problem-solving skills and learn core content in a nontraditional setting.

“The importance of the VW eLabs and the student-run businesses is not in learning how to use the actual digital fabrication tools or how to run a business,” says Michael Stone, STEM Director of Innovative Learning at Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation, who brought the Real World Scholars program to Hamilton County. “What we are doing within these schools is very intentional, combining technology and innovation to bring project-based learning to life in Hamilton County and develop critical workplace skills while incorporating core curriculum.”

In the Chattanooga 2.0 report, innovation in the classroom was identified as a critical area of focus needed to double the number of post-secondary degrees and credentials completed by Hamilton County graduates and double the overall percentage of adults in Hamilton County with a college degree or technical training certificate by 2025. The careers of today and tomorrow require us to reimagine learning for the 21st century. Relevant, engaging learning experiences like those taking place in the VW eLabs prepare our students for the dynamic, integrated work environments they’ll one day enter.

“Our students are excited to come to school,” says Chris Seanard, VW eLab instructor at Dalewood Middle School. “It isn’t always easy. There are challenges you would find in any business or workplace. But the pride our students feel about their work, their business and their school makes them show up each day to tackle the next task. They almost forget they’re learning.”

Through business and community partnerships and innovative new tools and opportunities, we can empower educators and excite students about learning while meeting industry demand for a future ready workforce. Now that sounds like the makings of the smartest community in the South.