UM-Flint to host Young Sharks pitch competition, May 23

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Students celebrating a win at a Young Sharks event
At UM-Flint’s Young Sharks/Junior Sharks pitch competition, elementary and middle school students present their entrepreneurial ideas developed as part of an integrated classroom curriculum (Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography).

The University of Michigan-Flint is helping elementary and middle school students turn from entrepreneurial small fry into big fish – with real prize money on the line. More than 450 students in grades three through eight will visit UM-Flint's Riverfront Conference Center, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., May 23, for the Young Sharks/Junior Sharks pitch competition.

Students from area schools will compete within their classrooms prior to the event, with each class winner advancing to the pitch competition on campus. Pitches will be judged by Justin Horvath, president of the Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership; Bethany Collins, an entrepreneur and community developer from Flint; and Erin Cavusgill, professor of marketing at UM-Flint's School of Management. The top three teams from both the Young Sharks (grades three to five) and Junior Sharks (grades six to eight) will receive crystal plaques and cash prizes.

The event, which first occurred in 2019, is supported by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Classes from Grand Blanc's Myers Elementary, Mason Elementary, Brendel Elementary, Perry Innovation Center, Grand Blanc East Middle School, and Grand Blanc West Middle School are participating in Young Sharks/Junior Sharks, as is Peckham Inc.'s Youth Career Academy in Flint. While classes vote to decide who will compete in the pitch competition in May, every student will have the opportunity to share their entrepreneurial concepts during a poster presentation session on May 23.

The pitch competition is an annual culmination of groundbreaking efforts to incorporate entrepreneurship, economics, and innovation into existing K-12 curriculum. Participating teachers attend a  professional development workshop facilitated by the curriculum co-authors and then work to lead students through every phase of the entrepreneurial process, from ideation to development to the pitch event. 

The curriculum was developed by Terry Groves, former K-8 social studies curriculum chair at Grand Blanc Community Schools; along with Paula Nas, David Merot, and Nic Custer from UM-Flint's Office of Economic Development. In addition to these team members, the entire Office of Economic Development team plans and hosts the annual pitch competition. 

Paula Nas

"We've created a full suite of lesson plans for teachers that are easy to use and implement," said Nas. "While aligning with the state of Michigan content standards, it covers everything from what it means to be an entrepreneur, how to innovate and work as a team, and fundamental concepts of revenues, costs, and profit. In addition to economics, the curriculum also incorporates math, social studies and writing."

Jason Vallimont, a sixth to eighth grade teacher at Grand Blanc's Perry Innovation Center, is in his third year with the program. 

"The students really get a lot more than just marketing, economics and entrepreneurship from their participation," he said. "Lots of groups took part in the design and engineering process and developed prototypes. Instead of just working their way through a course, it was more like a learning journey. Some of the students reached out to experts in their fields to get feedback on their ideas."

That opportunity for learning outside of the standard day-to-day classroom experience is invaluable for young learners, according to Groves. 

"The Young Sharks program takes students into the real world," he said. "So much of what they've had to do has been limited to a textbook."

Mason Elementary educator Christina Ostrander has seen her students thrive in new ways thanks to Young Sharks. 

"Any time you allow your students to think outside of the box, you're going to get so much much more innovation and creativity out of them," Ostrander said. "We do so much throughout the year and at the end is this amazing opportunity to present in front of hundreds of other kids."

More information about Young Sharks/Junior Sharks can be found on the program's webpage. Educators interested in participating in the program can contact Nas at [email protected].

Logan McGrady is the marketing & digital communication manager for the Office of Marketing and Communication.