There’s growing evidence about the teaching strategies and learning approaches that work best for middle schoolers. Researchers highlight early adolescence as a time of collaboration, curiosity, and choice.
The plasticity of the teenage brain makes middle school a prime opportunity for instilling an entrepreneurial mindset. And social studies teacher Dave Cross at Strong Vincent Middle School in Erie, Pennsylvania, knows a thing or two about that.
Innovating in Erie’s Public Schools
In 2017, Cross and his colleagues began teaching the Ice House model to their seventh-grade social studies students. At the time, ELI had designed the curriculum for adults, college students, and high schoolers. But a team of administrators and teachers in Erie’s Public Schools felt optimistic about introducing an entrepreneurial mindset at a younger age.
Working closely with ELI, Cross drew on successes within his district to help create the Ice House Middle School Edition, which launched in 2019.
Cross said he emphasized to his students that he didn’t expect them to start businesses from day one. “But what I do promote is getting everybody to think like an entrepreneur, no matter what path they take.”
The definition of entrepreneurship as the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others resonates with his students and their parents. “A lot of students can relate to what’s in the Ice House program,” Cross said. “We’re not getting the question ‘Why do I have to know this?’ from students.
Collaboration Between Erie Schools
Thanks to the support of Erie’s School Board and the district’s central office, the local program blossomed into a model for middle schools across the country. Chris Popa, a vice principal at Strong Vincent Middle School, credits Cross for creating additional resources for use in middle and/or high school classrooms (over 600 pages’ worth). The collaborative effort also included the other seventh-grade teachers who utilize the materials. As well as the counselors who support the program, the community members who share their stories with students, and the eighth-grade teachers. The teachers reinforce the model by referencing the life lessons.
Eighth-grade teachers also use the Opportunity Discovery Canvases to reflect on historical examples of entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving, whether students learn about time periods like the Industrial Revolution or someone like George Washington.
Popa estimates that more than 700 students have completed the Ice House course at Strong Vincent Middle School in the past four years. Across Erie’s Public Schools as a whole, the number totals more than 3,000 students.
Pivoting due to COVID
Being in a virtual setting during the 2020-21 school year could have thrown a wrench into Erie’s Ice House program. But the district’s counselors worked with local entrepreneurs and other community members to record interviews with scripted questions to mirror the live sessions of previous years. “It’s exactly what we’re showing our kids for the 21st century, to think outside the box,” Popa said.
Erie’s educators also collaborated with ELI to integrate Ice House video content into the Schoology learning management system so students could access it online 24/7. “ELI and Erie didn’t let anything stand in their way,” Popa said. “The pandemic was just a speed bump.”
The economic downturn exacerbated Erie’s already disheartening economic situation. The city has lost tens of thousands of residents in the past decades, down from a high of 138,000 in 1960 to just under 95,000 in 2020.
But Popa points to positive signs of entrepreneurial thinking and new development. Local businesses and colleges continue to be eager to partner with the school district on its entrepreneurship program. And in early August, the school board approved a brand new social studies curriculum. A full quarter of the year will be dedicated to the Ice House curriculum.
The Future of Entrepreneurship Education in Erie
“In education, we get a lot of programs that are hot this minute and then lose air,” Popa said. “We’ve kept the momentum going by refining what we do every year, adapting, and changing to make our work better.”
The excitement of seeing the middle school curriculum adopted around the globe creates enthusiasm and buy-in on the local level. “It can’t be just me coordinating and setting up trainings or the teachers in the classrooms,” Popa said. “It’s up to everyone to sit down, talk, and adjust to make the whole program work.”
The district continues to lead the way in the use and tracking of the Ice House model. It’s currently exploring ways to integrate the Ice House lessons more deeply at the high school level. Also, monitor long-term outcomes from its middle school program.
For his part, Cross can’t wait to see what evolves next. “What I love about the Ice House program is all the different directions it takes,” he said. But whatever the future brings, he’s sure of one thing: “Entrepreneurial mindsets will lead to a brighter future in Erie.”