Education summit covers entrepreneurship, emerging technologies in schools

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Williamson, Inc.’s annual education summit was all about anticipating the needs of the workforce and preparing children through innovative programs and methods.

Williamson, Inc. President and CEO Matt Largen hosted Tuesday’s event and welcomed two panels of education partners and leaders. 

Largen kicked off the summit with a discussion about entrepreneurship with Hallie Heiter, director of entrepreneurial leadership at Battle Ground Academy, Kari Miller, director of the Williamson County School District’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center, and Cherie Hammond, treasurer of the EIC Catalyst Network.

Miller described the EIC, which opened in August and accepts 10th- through 12th-graders, as a public-private partnership made possible by the Catalyst Network, a group of business leaders and industry experts who help fund the program and spend time mentoring the students.

With the help of these mentors, groups of three or four students will launch their own businesses within the walls of the EIC. This fall, 130 students representing all 10 high schools in the district will be brainstorming ideas for their companies.

“The most remarkable fact is that 90% of those kids have never taken a business or marketing class in their life. This is their first time,” Miller said. “So, to me, we’re really growing entrepreneurship.”

Similarly, students who participate in BGA’s entrepreneurship program pitch ideas to up-and-running businesses and work with representatives to implement these strategies.

Heiter said that BGA’s program is the only entrepreneurship program in the country that serves high schoolers from freshmen to seniors. She said the program stresses the development of soft skills, the No. 1 aspect missing from today’s pool of young workers, according to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.

Tennessee Tech President Phil Oldham, who moderated the conversation with Largen, said that this kind of preparedness is exactly what students need.

“We know that graduates are going to have multiple transitions in their life,” he said, pointing out that the average college graduate will change careers about eight times. “They have to be fluid. They have to be capable of navigating that change in their life.”

Hammond said she believes the EIC is preparing the future workforce and implored the business community to get involved.

“This is the opportunity that’s right now relevant and cutting edge that you don’t want to miss,” she said. “In the next 10 years, 60% of our jobs will change, and they’ll look different. … Our No. 1 asset in Williamson County is our education system. So, if you take that and match that up with what the businesses are saying our No. 1 need is, as Dr. Oldham just said — a prepared and educated workforce — this is that.”

The conversation about soft skills — and some of the most complicated hard skills — continued with a panel about technology and STEM programs.

Franklin High School teacher Brent Greene and Brentwood Academy technology and robotics program director Chris Allen joined Freedom Middle School STEM teacher and TechFit coach Patty Littlejohn and WCS technology coach Missy Poloskey to speak about how they are working to prepare students for the future.

Greene runs an autonomous vehicle program at FHS. It is based on a program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, he said that the MIT curriculum was not strong enough for WCS — a statement that drew a chuckle from the crowd.

“That’s not how you do autonomous vehicles. That’s not how you learn, to have everything done for you, so I stripped it down, rewrote it and just handed it to the kids the following year and said, ‘This is what I want,’” he said. “I showed them the car I built. … I gave them some broken code and the idea, and I said, ‘Go.’”

After Greene said he lectures for only about 15 minutes per week, Largen asked him why he runs his classroom in an untraditional way. Greene said he wants to teach students that, in the real world, they’re expected to exhaust every resource before going to the boss.

“I want them to get used to being in the real world. You’ve got all these resources around you. There’s not just one person in the room you go to for every single problem you have,” he said.

Additionally, he has every student present everything they do to the class to develop communication skills.

Allen described his robotics program, explaining that robots are rapidly taking over jobs, so learning these technical engineering skills is critical for tomorrow’s workforce.

Littlejohn welcomed some of her middle school students to the stage to present their TechFit projects, which use technology to incorporate exercise into an interactive game — “exer-games,” Littlejohn called them.

For example, Blake Green and Caleb Martin from Poplar Grove Middle School demonstrated their “Escape Game” style of obstacle course. The first part of the course requires players to do sit-ups or jumping jacks and throw a basketball into a box, which triggers a buzzer, allowing participants to move to the next section.

“At this section, the next player will push a button and the stack light would light up one of three different colors: red, blue or green,” Martin said. “The stack light will tell teammates how many squats to complete.”

Poloskey then spoke about cultivating empathy in students, something she said is an important characteristic to drive success in technology or any other field.

“If you really want to make a change-maker in a student … you have to have empathy as that driving force,” she said. “Think about it — if you go and you Google something or you look something up in your personal time … it’s because that’s something that piqued your interest, and those are the things that drive students as well. So, empathy is what gets us involved in our community. It’s what gets us involved as adults, and that’s what helps drive our students.”

Finally, FSSD Director of Schools David Snowden and Jason Golden, superintendent of WCS, gave presentations about their school districts.

Snowden expressed pride the diversity of FSSD, where 40% of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The district’s racial demographics break down to about 52% white, 25% Hispanic, 15% African American, 7% Asian and 1% other. Additionally, 32 languages are spoken by the student body.

He said that the district emphasizes relationships.

“When (you) tour Nissan or other industries, what do you see the work environment as? What I’ve seen is collaboration — teams working together to solve problems,” he said. “We believe the same thing in the Franklin Special School District.”

Golden then shifted the conversation to the successes and challenges in his district, which serves over 41,000 students and hired 410 new teachers this year.

“Ultimately, our goal is to help (students) find ways to self-actualize as they grow into adults,” Golden said. “One of the things we’ve seen with the people who have come before is we’ve reached that point where the train is running, and our students are coming back to our community and keeping this community vibrant as we grow.”

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