Program helps high school teachers encourage students to find new entrepreneurial avenues
Friday, June 17, 2016

A group of high school students in Pekin, Iowa, has started a rent-a-chicken business with help from a University of Iowa entrepreneurial education program.

The students’ business is two years old and has five chickens available for rent by community members who want fresh eggs. Juston Lamb, the high school’s agriculture education teacher who helped the students get the business off the ground, says it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. The business has had key staff changes, and a visit from a raccoon reduced their inventory from eight chickens to five. But it’s a lesson for the students that startups face an array of unforeseen challenges.

The idea to pursue the chicken rental business came after Lamb attended the STEM Innovator program at the University of Iowa in 2013 and 2014. The program, offered in collaboration by the College of Education and the Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship, helps teachers from across the state apply entrepreneurial principles to develop unique solutions to STEM problems.

This year’s STEM Innovator is set for June 20–23 and will bring 89 Iowa teachers to the Kirkwood Regional Center at the University of Iowa in Coralville. One of this year’s activities is called Design Thinking, where architects from the Omaha-based DLR Group and Hiawatha’s Storey Kenworthy office designers will work with teachers to create a collaborative learning space.

“STEM Innovator is a professional development program that equips educators with the tools needed to partner with business and industry,” says Dawn Bowlus, director of the Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship. “It prepares their students to work in teams employing the entrepreneurial mindset and innovative thinking to solve real-world, community driven programs.”

“Working on solving a problem of student and community interest increases student interest and achievement in STEM courses,” says Leslie Flynn, assistant professor of science education in the College of Education, who helped to develop the STEM Innovator program. In addition, she says it teaches skills and attributes necessary for college and career readiness.

Teachers leave the program with graduate school credits, certification as a STEM Innovator instructor, and lots of new ideas. They take ideas back to their high schools and help students develop businesses that tackle real-world challenges. Other ideas generated by students who have attended STEM Innovator include:

  • A heat-sensitive bracelet to prevent vehicular heat stroke deaths, invented by students at Davenport West High School
  • A gourmet popcorn business, Panther Pawpcorn, started by students at Monticello High School
  • An IT consulting business started by students at Cedar Rapids Xavier High School

STEM Innovator–certified high school teachers will be able to offer University of Iowa undergraduate credits to their students through the College of Engineering starting in the spring of 2017.

Lamb says that in Pekin, the students came up with the idea for the rent-a-chicken business in part because of the growing market demand for fresh food, including eggs. But it’s intended to address the larger problem of the low availability of fresh food in Pekin, which lacks a grocery store.

The students also are looking at ways to increase production of fruits and vegetables for the community. They’re growing hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes, and have designed a tunnel shelter, a portable greenhouse on a railed track that can be moved to warm a patch of ground when the weather is still too cold for planting. The shelter insulates the soil so that seeds can be planted, giving the students a head start on the growing season. This allows them to plant earlier in the spring and harvest later in the fall to increase their production.

They hope to eventually open a farmer’s market to sell the produce.  

“Since we don’t have a grocery store anywhere in the school district, this would be a great addition to the community,” Lamb says.

Lamb says the ideas for the businesses had been percolating for some time, but his participation in the UI STEM Innovator program helped him to understand he could encourage his students to pursue them from a STEM angle.

“I had been looking for ways to incorporate more scientific principles into my class and how we could encourage students to start businesses that incorporate those principles,” he says. “The university program gave us helpful examples of how to talk through ideas with students and encourage them to be innovative and entrepreneurial.”