HBW Students Think Like Sharks To Help Special Ed

By on December 20, 2017

HBW Shark TankEarlier this year, Verona’s special education staff gathered several donations and created rooms at Laning Avenue School and H.B. Whitehorne Middle School to help students with sensory issues. The grants bought many comforting pieces of equipment, but not everything the educators thought they needed.

To solve their dilemma, they turned to some of the most innovative thinkers in Verona: sixth graders at HBW. In a Shark Tank-style competition, students recently presented some school budget-friendly ways to further outfit the two rooms, ideas that will now become reality thanks to a grant from the Verona Foundation for Educational Excellence (VFEE).

If you’re not familiar with Shark Tank–though most HBW students clearly are–it’s a reality TV show that airs on CNBC. Would-be entrepreneurs present their ideas to a group of judges (the show’s “sharks”) who have become multimillionaires through their own entrepreneurial efforts. The show tests contestants’ knowledge of their marketplace, and their production and presentation skills–just as the HBW version did.

To get started, students in the technology cycle class listened to a presentation by one of Verona speech/language specialists, Kathleen Wrobel-Thomas, CCC-SLP. They heard about not only what the rooms had, but the challenges that their fellow students with sensory issues face. Some may need to touch or hug things to calm themselves down and get re-centered for learning, while others may need activities to get energized. Then they had to think up a product and make a presentation that would convince judges to invest in it, just as in the real reality TV show. In addition to Wrobel, the judges included Rachel Grasso, a special education teacher at HBW; Julia Harth, the school’s tech ed teacher; and Frank Mauriello, director of special services for Verona Public Schools.

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For one team, the solution was a small drone in a jar. “School can be stressful,” Patrick Huaman told the judges. “We wanted to create a product that could take students’ mind off stress.” That was a great idea, the judges agreed, but they wanted to know what Huaman and his teammate could do to lower the production cost of their idea, which they estimated at $40 to $60 per unit. But the idea was solid enough that judges awarded it some of their “TED Cash”, the in-class currency that Harth uses for motivation. “I’m big into safety and you guys really thought about that,” said Mauriello. “I would like to work with you.”
HBW Shark Tank

For another team, the solution was a portable lap desk covered in different sensory surfaces. Emma Kirby, Dominique La Barbiera and their teammates described for the judges how the different textures could be switched and stored when not in use, important criteria for rooms that have limited equipment space. And their production price–$20 to $25 per unit–was a strong selling point. “I can see us purchasing several of these,” said Wrobel-Thomas. “They could be used in the sensory rooms or Guidance Department, or even for independent reading.”

The students had clearly studied the techniques used by real Shark Tank competitors before they made their pitches. “Our product is affordable and practical for a school on a budget,” declared Jake Marion, part of a team that designed interchangeable textures that could be velcroed to a door. Megan McGrath’s team handed judges samples of the containers that they would install in a table to hold other sensory products. In each presentation, the students deftly fielded judges’ questions with big smiles, just as the best competitors do on television.

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“You guys are making this really hard to decide,” said Harth.

In the end, the HBW judges came to a sensible compromise, something that sometimes eludes the real “sharks”. The educators selected five groups and asked the top two groups to combine their efforts and work together. Production, to begin early next year, will be funded by a VFEE grant. Said Wrobel-Thomas, “We were very appreciative and impressed with the efforts of all the student designers.”
HBW Shark Tank

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