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Local camp helps kids hone business skills

MIDDLEBURY — It’s the summer, and summer camps are in season with kids hiking with a new friend or jumping into the pool on a hot day and sitting around a campfire in the evening.
But at Middlebury Union Middle School, summer camp is taking on a different meaning.
There, youngsters this past month sat in groups poring over graphs and data and discussing their equity plans. They were part of Shark Tank Startup, a summer program at the middle school where students who need extra support with their academic skills are invited to attend. Over the course of three weeks, these 17 middle school students were entrepreneurs learning business, math and English through real life simulations.
MUMS teacher Martha Santa Maria wanted to make academics fun and applicable for the students when she developed the program. The driving force, however, was to open up doors to new opportunities for her young charges.
“I had a student, and I kept saying to my husband, ‘How can he start a business?’” Santa Maria said. “This student basically lived in poverty and would try to always make money, and then one day I was watching (the reality television show) ‘Shark Tank,’ and eureka! I could marry these two things!”
During the optional summer program, the 17 students divide into three teams to build their own companies by developing products, evaluating their business and conducting market analyses. The program enlisted volunteers from Vermont Federal Credit Union in Middlebury to mentor students through their entrepreneurial journey.
The MUMS program culminated last Friday with an event modeled on the “Shark Tank” TV program where teams pitch their startups to local business owners — the “sharks.” In this case, the sharks were John Rouse of Rouse Tire Sales, Laura Flint of the Middlebury UPS store, Amey Ryan of IPJ Real Estate and Paris Rinder-Goddard of Fire and Ice Restaurant.
The main difference between Shark Tank Startup at MUMS and a traditional summer school program is that in Shark Tank Startup students can make meaning of and apply their learning, Santa Maria said. Although the program culminates in an event that pitches make-believe businesses, the process is authentic. Students form teams and create their own products. They hold discussions with Vermont Federal Credit Union branch manager James V. McGlynn, their mentor, about their business plans; they take their products to the Farmers Market and gather data and feedback.
“It was great to see these future entrepreneurs work together, share ideas and take criticisms and advice,” McGlynn said. “They took criticisms well, and if they felt strongly about their plans, they would come back and give their own reasoning. It was a great experience on both sides.”
This authentic process helps motivate the students, according to Santa Maria. Students are doing their work not for an abstract grade in the classroom, but instead, they are performing for an authentic audience that cares about the work that they’re doing.
“With this program, we’re taking traditional summer school and banishing it, turning it into a learning camp,” she said. “When we invite the kids to the program, we send out camp brochures. Everything is in color and positive, and we really try to change the belief that learning in the summer has to be boring.”
The teachers reach out and invite each student to the program individually. Santa Maria stresses that, as students are invited, attendance is not mandatory. She hopes that this will motivate students to attend because they want to and not because they are forced to.
Santa Maria wants to remove the stigma that summer school is boring and encourage students to think of academic summer camps as an option in their futures. Many students don’t consider these camps, but Santa Maria hopes that their experiences at Shark Tank Startup will change these perceptions.
“The great news is that some of the kids who did the program last year are doing academic camps this year,” she said. “I’m hoping that this mentality will reach these kids too — that learning extends into the summer. You’re always learning.”
Students are learning much more than just business, math and English skills. As they developed their products and companies throughout the summer, meeting with McGlynn and potential clients, they’ve also developed greater confidence in themselves and their abilities.
Stirling Sidaway, 12, was part of the company Shark Tank Cookies, which sells peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. He managed the company’s expenses and made sure that they were manageable. The company even considered buying ingredients in bulk to keep costs low, but Sidaway acknowledged that, in that case, they may waste most of the ingredients.
“I’m feeling pretty excited about (the final business pitch),” Sidaway said. “I like the idea of presenting the business. I think that continuing to work on something like this in the future is a great idea!”

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