Dr. Maddy Halbach is an Academy of Finance (AOF) instructor, Career Technology Programs; and William Beydler is a CyberSecurity Networking Academy instructor, both at the Applications and Research Lab (ARL) for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS).
Together, they have shepherded students from the two disparate course groups in collaboration to meet a challenge to “develop innovative products to help solve global and local problems while supporting global sustainability.”
That Spirit of Innovation Challenge is issued by The Conrad Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the wife of the late Apollo 12 astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, to help students to “learn design thinking skills, reap the benefits of multidisciplinary learning experiences, and [be] introduced to the tools that will help them participate and succeed in the knowledge based economy.”
The HCPSS offers Career Academies as a path for students who are interested in studying specific career areas while still in high school. Specific courses of study are assigned for each of the different academies, and additional requirements, such as participating in competitions and internships, are also a significant aspect.
When teams from the CyberSecurity Networking Academy, who were competing in the Spirit of Innovation Challenge, ran into business-oriented challenges they were unfamiliar with, as in the real world, they called in the “experts” — Academy of Finance students.
Maryland Entrepreneur Quarterly questioned Halbach and Beydler about this collaborative effort.
Could you please outline the exact project you have your students undertaking?
This competition was an outgrowth of the Conrad Foundation and is their flagship program called the Spirit of Innovation Challenge. The Conrad Foundation is dedicated to fundamentally shifting how science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are taught in K–12 schools and across socioeconomic levels. It is the only not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization of its kind to combine education, innovation and entrepreneurship to spark student interest in STEM careers and sustain a knowledge-based economy.
This annual competition challenges high school student teams to use STEM skills to develop the products of tomorrow. The Spirit of Innovation Challenge gives students the chance to develop products or innovations centered around four different categories: Aerospace and Aviation, Cyber-Technology and Security, Energy and Environment and Health and Nutrition. These categories are broad to allow students to free range to innovate new ideas.
Teams from Cybersecurity Networking Academy entered the Cyber-Technology and Security challenge category and each team researched the cyber industry to come up with a unique, real-world product or a service. As part of the first phase, they entered abstracts of their ideas. Two of the teams were selected as semifinalists to further develop their abstracts into a full proposal.
As part of their proposal, they were required to submit a business plan for their product, and with no experience in the arena of business writing, they sought further assistance from the Academy of Finance.
What prompted you to take this particular approach to teaching your students?
To complement the STEM objectives, this was an opportunity for Academy of Finance students to develop cross-disciplinary activities. At the same time, it provided a real-world application for their knowledge-based task.
In the developmental stage of the competition, students in both academies participated in a proposal-writing workshop to prepare them to create a response to the requirements. At this point, AOF students had an opportunity to interact with other academies, engaging in cross-curricular collaborative cooperation.
Students brainstormed what might be necessary in the field of cybersecurity that currently is not sold over-the-counter. These brainstorming ideas were then taken back to the cyber labs so Cyber students could create concepts and potential products from them. Cyber students then responded to competition requirements and awaited the results.
Do your students already envision themselves as future entrepreneurs? Do you see some who would be likely to start a business somewhere along the line?
The AOF students who participated in this project are business-focused, and a couple do wish to become entrepreneurs. They enjoy the idea of being independent and being their own boss. One wishes to start his own accounting firm, once he gets his CPA.
There seems to be an interest from at least one of the students in the cyber networking program in becoming an entrepreneur as well.
Do they consider themselves operating in a serious business environment?
The AOF students are all going into the business environment once they finish college. A few are currently working in the office environment part-time while they attend high school and will continue afterwards during college breaks.
Many of the AOF students began these positions during their internships and their mentors valued them as employees and decided to keep them on past the internship program as part-time employees.
Are both the cybersecurity students and the business students learning the basics of business plans?
CyberSecurity Networking students are learning the fundamentals from the AOF students. Their main thrust is pure technical skills; however, they have had prior experience in writing proposals in response to [requests for proposals]. The second part of this collaborative effort occurred after Cyber students found out that they were advancing to the next phase of the competition.
AOF students worked with these students, mimicking real-world consultants working with clients. They read about the project prior to meeting with the two teams, asked questions about the project, what were the expectations for the end product, how much assistance did the Cyber students anticipate from the AOF, etc.
AOF students themselves created two teams to work with the competing teams and set up the framework for the business plans. Each AOF team wrote the responses that were not technical in nature. Once the Cyber teams had a chance to review what the AOF students had written, they edited this information and incorporated their technical expertise.
How does the high school curriculum handle educating students on the art of selling?
There is a unit in the Marketing Academy and in Principles of Business courses located at the high schools that teach students to sell. Students can also participate in FBLA and DECA, which are business organizations for students at their local high schools. In these organizations, competitions are conducted, and students can compete in state competitions in various business sectors; selling is one of them.
The AOF does offer a marketing course that also includes selling, marketing research, proposal writing during the second year of the program. Students create international business and marketing plans for products they have conceptualized during the program. They also create persuasive speeches and essays.
Do you think there will be a real consumer market for the students’ project?
Because this industry is ever-changing and relying heavily on the cyber realm, there will be a continuing demand for addressing cyber-related products or services. The winning teams will definitely be looking at a real consumer market. Our teams have yet to be selected for the finalist round. Finalists receive grant funding to create their proposed products.
Have you yourself ever been an entrepreneur?
Halbach: Yes, I have been an entrepreneur in the past. I designed and sold clothing to clients and boutiques. I enjoyed being my own boss and enjoyed the experience. Now I love passing this knowledge and experience to my students.