Last year, Milo Peters, then a first grader, showed up to the chili cook-off fundraiser at his school—Borton Primary Magnet School—with little packets of marigold seeds to sell. He’d grown the marigolds himself and learned from his mom how to pull the seeds from the dry flower. Each packet was folded into a special origami envelope and went for a dollar.
“We made $13 for Borton,” Milo said. “It was a really good start.”
Indeed it was. When they saw Milo’s success, other students wanted to save and sell seeds, too. Eventually, Milo’s idea evolved into a classroom microbusiness called the Borton Garden Shop, where students sell seeds along with small clear ornaments filled with colorful peppers and rosemary grown in the school garden.
“They wanted to make more money. Now they want to make candles using stuff from the garden,” said Molly Reed, who runs the school garden and outdoor learning at Borton.
Reed and her students found help from a national organization called Real World Scholars (RWS), which grants $1,000 to classroom teachers to develop small businesses with their students. By becoming an EdCorp (education corporation), students gain real-world experience through business projects that incorporate classroom curriculum in STEAM subjects—science, technology, engineering, art, and math, said Elyse Burden, cofounder of RWS.
In 2014, RWS piloted an EdCorp project in a chemistry class in San Diego, where students developed a small soap business. There are now 230 projects in 31 states. Three Tucson schools are among them.
In addition to funding, RWS provides basic business education and support and hosts an e-commerce site where EdCorps can sell their products online and keep all the profits. “We host the scary stuff for them so they can focus on the fun, fruitful, formative experience,” Burden said.
Food and agricultural businesses are a natural option for schools that already work in those areas, Burden said. For example, in Maine students started selling water flavored with maple syrup. Other schools are offering CSAs selling produce they’ve grown themselves. Some classes are keeping bees and selling honey.
At Apollo Middle School, seventh graders are making bath bombs from herbs grown in an aquaponic pond system that the students researched and created with their science teachers Priscilla Fischback, Katie Montgomery, and Nicholas Martell.
Aquaponics is a system combining aquaculture and hydroponics, in which plants grow using the nutrients in fish waste, helping to filter pond water in the process. Students realized they could create a business using plants from the pond, Fischback said.
Fischback had made sugar scrubs, but had no first-hand knowledge of bath bombs, which are ball-shaped mixtures of dry ingredients that effervesce when wet. So she set her students off to research and experiment with recipes. “The next day we got surprises because some of the bombs expanded exponentially,” she said. “They were like, ‘What happened?’ ”
What happened is that they had poured water into the mixture too quickly, which activated the citric acid, causing a chemical reaction.
“I just had to let them do it,” Fischback said. “I knew something was off, and I opened my cabinet and saw the soap everywhere. But I said, ‘I’m glad you guys are learning.’ Ever since then they know to not pour water too fast.”
Fischback said her students’ initial idea was to create Pokémon-themed bath bombs. “Because at the beginning of the year the Pokémon craze was on,” she said.
She had them research licensing to learn what would be possible with an existing brand and also had them directly contact the company that produces Pokémon. “That was really entertaining to watch a bunch of 12-year-olds who are really awkward make those phone calls. They were told no, they couldn’t use Pokémon, and they were really bummed,” Fischback said.
Turned down by Pokémon, the students decided to link their bath bombs to endangered species awareness. Each bath bomb is labeled with a tag sharing information about a specific species and its endangered status. The students also created figurines of some of the animals using a 3D printer. The figurines will go inside some of the bath bombs “like a little surprise,” Fischback said.
Eventually they want to be able to adopt an animal from Reid Park Zoo, Fischback said, supporting that animal with money made from the sales of their product.
This kind of problem solving is exactly what RWS likes to invest in, Burden said.
In education circles, it’s called problem-based learning, said Joshua Ruddick, who teaches natural resource management and agriculture at Santa Rita High School. Ruddick got an RWS grant to fund projects based on the two student-run greenhouses he supervises. Under the name Santa Rita Sprouts, the classes sell produce they’ve grown in one of the greenhouses on the second Saturday of every month through Produce On Wheels Without Waste (POWWOW).
Ruddick’s students are also making a collection of bath soaps and bath bombs called Suds. With RWS funding, they bought supplies then started experimenting with scents and colors.
The Suds come in various fragrances, including Tropical Breeze (juniper and bay rum), Sunday at Grandma’s (coffee and oatmeal), and Lavender Love (lavender and lilac). To make the soaps, students needed a basic understanding of chemistry and plant biology. “They took wildflowers that we had planted and used the flower materials, the petals, in the products,” Ruddick said. Future plans include experimenting with coconut and olive oils.
Ruddick, who worked in business for 15 years before becoming a teacher, said what has impressed him the most about bringing an entrepreneurial project to the classroom is the kind of collaboration it has yielded. “It’s given me a really tangible example of the power of project-based learning and getting kids to work together.”
On soap days, he said, the students come in and get to work, each one taking responsibility for his or her part. “I have guys that all they do is sit and sniff the essential oils to figure out good combinations.”
This kind of teamwork is productive, he said. “Before, some kids would work together but always that typical scenario where one kid does the heavy lifting and the others don’t do much. This one has been an entire class environment, where all 28 to 30 kids are engaged and involved,” Ruddick said.
Fischback echoed that sentiment and said the bath bomb project has changed her classroom environment. “I don’t have behavior problems. They have to figure how to make things work with each other. I don’t hear them fussing about it.”
Burden said that another important aspect of EdCorps is connecting them to the local community. In Tucson, this was easy, she said. “We didn’t want just a ‘unicorn teacher,’ or a single strong leader. We had this idea of what a supportive ecosystem would look like. Tucson is one of our favorite communities.”
Organizations like Lead Local and Community Share have been helpful in connecting EdCorp projects to local experts and markets. Borton used Community Share to find a marketing specialist who helped the Garden Shop with its logo. And Lead Local connected EdCorp projects with the pop-up market Cultivate, where teachers and students sold products last December.
That market taught Fischback and other teachers a lot about business, like the need for bags for the product and a credit card reader. “I didn’t realize all the little things involved to create and run a small business. I appreciate those people who really have to have a passion for it,” she said.
Burden said the goal of RWS isn’t to turn teachers into business people, but to help them make their classroom experience meaningful. “It’s not really about profit, though that can be exciting for kids. We want to get kids out there learning and selling and talking about what they’re doing and articulating the value of that,” she said.
Earlier this year, Milo Peters, the original seed saver, stood on a stage with Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild when Borton was named Green School of the Year. Later, at the same event, he sat at a booth selling seeds. He talked to anyone who came up to the table—about Borton, about if they had a garden, about seed saving.
Reed said this kind of engagement helps fulfill her goal as a teacher of outdoor learning—to promote a culture of health. “Kids recognize that flowers are pretty and food is great to eat, but that they can continue the cycle and share that information with the public is invaluable.” ✜
Kimi Eisele is a Tucson-based writer and multidisciplinary artist.