Investing in the Future

Things are changing in the world of education, and they’re changing fast.

the Diamond Challenge awards up to $100,000 to high-school students with entrepreneurial projects.

A half-dozen years ago, “entrepreneurship was not even in the language” of educators in the elementary and secondary school universe, says Rachel Strauss, program coordinator for the University of Delaware’s Horn Entrepreneurship program.

Today, a growing numbers of teachers and administrators talk about agility, adaptability, flexibility, teamwork, analytics and problem-solving — buzzwords in a society that is becoming increasingly innovative and entrepreneurial. As a result, Delaware’s high schools, colleges and universities are turning out graduates with the nimble, analytical, change-focused mindset that sets them up to succeed in this environment.

Racehl Strauss

From her seat at Horn, Strauss has not only seen the change, she has helped drive it. That’s because her primary assignment is to coordinate one of the most prominent examples of entrepreneurial education in Delaware: the Diamond Challenge. It’s a UD-based international program that awards up to $100,000 a year in scholarships or venture capital funding to high school students with innovative entrepreneurial projects.

“It’s a pipeline for innovation,” says Julie Frieswyk, Horn’s assistant director for youth programs.

The Diamond Challenge attracted students from 11 states and 18 countries in 2018. But the winning business concept that year came from four students at the Charter School of Wilmington: H2ydratiOn, an environmentally friendly filter that can remove lead and other heavy metals from water. 

This year, going up against 62 teams from across the U.S. and 21 other countries, two teams from Delaware reached the top 20. “It’s amazing,” says Horn Director Dan Freeman. “For three days, Newark becomes the epicenter of global youth entrepreneurship.”

Julie Frieswyk

At the start, students tended to learn about the Diamond Challenge by chancing upon its website, and many still do. Then Strauss and others in the program began visiting high schools, “going classroom to classroom,” to talk up the program. In the process, they began creating enthusiasm among teachers. Now, Frieswyk says, entrepreneurship classes are finding their way into a number of Delaware high schools, including Newark Charter, MOT Charter, Appoquinimink, William Penn and Ursuline Academy.

Opportunities for school teams to compete in entrepreneurial competitions also keep expanding: Junior Achievement of Delaware’s Barracuda Bowl Regional Competition was held for the first time in April. Seven teams from Delaware and New Jersey participated. The top three finishers included teams from Caesar Rodney High School in Kent County and Middletown High School in New Castle County.  

Dual School fosters ‘Passion Projects’

An outside-the-box initiative called Dual School, funded primarily by Wilmington businessman Paul McConnell and his wife Linda, has further fueled the growth of entrepreneurial opportunities for high school students. Dual School participants, drawn from schools throughout New Castle County, meet one afternoon a week in downtown Wilmington to work on their “passion projects” under the direction of Zack Jones, himself a Horn graduate. The students test their theories, build prototypes and, with guidance from mentors, connect with outside experts in their fields. Dual School has set up one satellite operation at William Penn High School in New Castle, where students can earn credit for taking the class, and will launch another in the fall at the Teen Warehouse, a gathering place and co-working space now under development in Wilmington.

“Thirty years ago, you’d graduate from college, get a job and keep it for your entire career. That experience is extremely rare now,” Jones says. “We need to teach agility, adaptability and flexibility, so students learn how to
handle uncertainty. These are the skills that will separate those who are successful from those who are not.”

Vocational Schools Coach Young Entrepreneurs

The entrepreneurial trend extends to vocational schools as well, says Vicki Gehrt, superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District.

Lisa Wilson

“[Entrepreneurial thinking is] part of the curriculum in every one of our programs,” she says. “In information technology, students have to be thinking of the future of IT. In cosmetology, if you’re working in a salon, you have to be creative with cut and color. And sheet metal — it goes beyond making ductwork.”

As the entrepreneurial wave crests, the state Department of Education is developing what it calls a “program of study” in marketing, a three-year high school sequence that will be heavy on entrepreneurial themes. Students would take one class a year in traditional high schools, or two at vo-tech schools, on topics like introductory marketing, digital marketing, social media, how to use graphic-design software and how to start a new business, says Lisa Wilson, a career and technical education associate in the department.

Once the curriculum is developed, it will be sent to school districts so teacher training can begin, with a goal of offering these classes for the first time in the fall of 2020, Wilson says.

Horn program expands its reach

Back at Horn, the program’s leaders continue to build offerings that inspire entrepreneurial thinking throughout the university, not just in the business school.

“That’s the beauty of Horn,” says Vincent DiFelice, a senior instructor and manager of venture support. “We’re associated with the entire university. All seven colleges take advantage of what we have to offer.”

Diamond Challenge Participants

DiFelice guides Hen Hatch, a startup funding competition for university students, staff and alumni that runs much like the Diamond Challenge. Teams pitch their business ideas, first online and then in person, with finalists
battling for a share of $100,000 in prize money. Successful entrepreneurs not only do the judging, they also provide feedback to the entrants. 

DiFelice also teaches a three-credit Startup Experience class, in which students work in teams to develop viable business concepts. “It’s a 15-week experience of what an entrepreneur would do to start a business,” he says.

Through Horn, the university offers about 40 incoming freshmen a four-year enrichment program called Delaware Innovation Fellows. Now finishing its third year, the program helps students “develop an entrepreneurial mindset, identify their passion ideas and recognize what they want to become,” Strauss says.

Another Horn option for undergraduates is a 10-credit certificate program that correlates with their majors. Some examples include: Eco-Entrepreneurship for College of Earth, Ocean & Environment students; New Product Development for agriculture students; and Design & Creative Making for students in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Tower Hill students make a difference

The elite century-old Tower Hill School is completing its first year offering a social innovation program in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. Juniors and seniors can take the class, taught by Penn faculty, sometimes online and sometimes visiting the school. Students hone entrepreneurial skills while developing projects that have a beneficial social purpose. “They have to generate an idea, prove it out, test it, and try to form collaborations to make it a reality,” says Anthony Pisapia, Tower Hill’s assistant head of school for academics.

One student is creating a marketplace to connect students who need service opportunities with organizations that need volunteers. Another has developed an online venture developing fashionable turbans for young Sikhs. A third is creating a landscaping service that serves a dual purpose: catering to people who cannot care for their yards while providing employment opportunities for low-income teens.

“The whole idea is to get them past a fear of failure,” Pisapia says. “Seeing them move forward on their projects is pretty exciting. They think they’re really onto something.”

The power of collaboration

Dr. Melissa Harrington

At Delaware State University, students’ greatest opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship come through engaging in research with faculty members, says Melissa Harrington, associate vice president for research. For science and technology majors, an individual research project is a requirement for earning a bachelor’s degree. “It’s not just theoretical. They’re doing something that leads to new knowledge,” she says.

In Delaware State’s College of Business Administration, the multidisciplinary Center for the Study of Innovation Management promotes research by faculty and students to develop new entrepreneurial models by blending traditional business subjects with areas like psychology, sociology and cognitive science. 

The right skills

As a two-year school offering associate degrees, Delaware Technical Community College offers programming that is practical and intensive, says David Hall, instructional coordinator for business technologies. Students learn how to write a business plan, the basics of business law, plus business planning and modeling. Class assignments frequently include networking and attending Chamber of Commerce events. 

“We get away from the textbook,” Hall says. “It’s not pie-in-the-sky stuff,” he adds, noting that his students have gone on to start businesses like power washing, a yoga studio, a diner and a food truck.

Both Delaware State and Delaware Tech have collaborated with Horn in developing aspects of their programs. “As a small state, we look at our entrepreneurship programs as a cohesive group,” Hall says. “We don’t try to
compete. We support each other.”

While training in entrepreneurship poses challenges for today’s educators in both high schools and higher education, it also offers hope and promise for the future. 

As the Department of Education’s Wilson notes, “we have to prepare today’s students for jobs that don’t yet exist.”

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