Turning a Web Design Class Into a Small Business

Mark SuterTwo years ago, Mark Suter, a computer tech teacher at Pandora-Gilboa High School (OH), invited his high school students to start an entrepreneurial tech club that would provide Web design, video production and staff training to community businesses and nonprofit organizations. That club, Rockettech, has exceeded even Suter’s expectations, grossing more than $14,000 in donations for its work — money that is reinvested into the club.

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THE Journal: How did you come up with the Rockettech idea?
Mark Suter:
I grew up in a small-business environment. My family has a produce business that encourages trying new things to differentiate itself from the supermarkets. Once I started teaching, I realized that my students are really sharp, with the energy and creativity to be entrepreneurial, and they’re already learning the skills in Web design, video production and programming. So why not let them test their skills in the real world and see if we can treat this classroom like a small business?

THE Journal: What has the experience been like?
Messy, and I like it that way. Standardized tests tend to be very clear-cut for students. My class is a little more like they’ll experience once they take a job somewhere, where if you’re going to be trying to innovate and grow, it’s going to be messy. I make myself vulnerable to try to model the idea that it’s okay to fail and make mistakes, because that’s how you learn.

THE Journal: Did you expect Rockettech to fail?
Yes. My thinking was that these are kids whose experience so far has been to study for the test, take the test, then move on to the next class. What’s going to happen when I stick them in front of a client who is dependent on them to do a good job or it will reflect poorly on the business?

THE Journal: Why has it succeeded?
When the kids come into class, it doesn’t smell like school to them anymore. They’re thinking in an innovative way and we have a mutual trust. I trust that if I give them something, they’re going to do everything they can to succeed. And they know that if they screw up, I’m not going to be angry with them if they’re doing all they can to be successful; I’m going to show them where they made their mistake and they’re going to try again.

THE Journal: What’s an example of a client your students have taken on?
This past year, the Allen County Economic Development Group entrusted us with making the website that potential companies use to see if they’re going to set up their business in our county. So there is some actual economic impact from the work that the Rockettech kids are doing. We talk about the fact that this isn’t a simulation; you’re affecting real businesses. We’ve done work for churches, several healthcare clients, the power company … a wide range of private and public sector clients.

THE Journal: What kinds of jobs, typically?
Suter: Web design and video production are the two main things. Our business model with the websites is we create it in a content management system, then we tell the company up front that we’re going to train you in how to run your website, whether through personal meetings or customized video tutorials, because we’re not in the business of keeping up websites. We can’t be, because my employees keep graduating. So we set up the hosting, design the website, then train as many people as they’d like at that company on how to maintain it. And we have a donation pledge that serves as our contract, which the students also negotiate. 

THE Journal: You ask for donations?
It’s kind of a professional understanding. On the donation pledge form it says, if we perform these services for you in this time frame, do you agree to donate x amount of dollars? We have milestones laid out, a timeline established, and then when the product is complete we have a meeting with the client and we ask how they feel about the service: Was it professionally done, was the communication professional, and if so, are you willing to donate the original amount we agreed to? If not, what can we do to improve or fix it? We haven’t had anybody yet who didn’t donate in the end because they didn’t like the service. They always have given us a chance to improve it until it is right. And the businesses really enjoy working with the kids. They understand that things might not be perfect on the first run, but they also know that in the end they’re going to be happy with what we deliver.

THE Journal: Why should other schools consider doing something similar?
Suter: I think there is a great opportunity right now for schools to add a real-world component to computer science and STEM classes. The lesson to be learned from what we have done is that yes, when you try something new and messy it’s going to flop sometimes, but when it is successful, it’s unbelievably satisfying not just for the student but for the teacher. I get to see these kids light up at the knowledge that they have created something that has worth to other people, other than just something that their parents put on the fridge.

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