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Innovation begins during high school in Kansas

by Dennis E. Powell

February 2012

Entrepreneurship begins early in Overland Park, Kan.

That's where high school students may spend half of each school day their junior and senior years in the Blue Valley School District's Center for Advanced Professional Studies. They do research, invent things and develop businesses. It is probably unlike any high school program you've ever seen.

"We treat these kids as if they were professionals with college degrees," says Donna M. Deeds, executive director of CAPS. "They have the same software, tools and equipment."

The CAPS program began with a conversation between the district's board of education and the superintendent five years ago. The board asked the superintendent to consider how secondary education could be improved, to toss out the existing assumptions and models. A plan to let high school juniors and seniors explore their innovative and entrepreneurial muses was part of the result.

Two years later, CAPS opened its doors to 250 students. Currently, 690 students are enrolled, and administrators expect to reach the program's 1,000-student capacity next year. It draws students from the five high schools of the Blue Valley district, six private high schools and home-schoolers. Applicants who agree to a code of conduct and business ethics may participate for one semester or for as many as four.

Each student chooses one of four tracks: bioscience, engineering, business or human services. Then, under teachers who have typically worked outside of education, with mentors from outside the school, and with existing businesses, they become involved in projects of their choice, either under the aegis of an outside business or on their own. Some students work on their own while others collaborate with one or more of their peers.

Through the program, students have developed a variety of products, from self-watering flowerpots to a unique way of charging cellular telephones to a method of increasing the safety of hydrogen fuel cells. "It's ideation to commercialization, all in high school," Deeds says.

What's more, the intellectual property generated belongs to the students who invented it. The program even assists in obtaining patents.

In addition to receiving business training, students are subject to a dress code and a code of business ethics that includes attending class each day on time and completing assignments promptly and well.

"Sometimes I feel as if I'm running a charm school," jokes Deeds. "But they learn that business letters don't begin, 'Hey, Dude.' We're breaking the paradigms of what people think high school kids can do. Our model is to combine the best of the business world and the best of education. It's hard work, but it isn't rocket science."

Many classes meet in CAPS' 66,000-square-foot building, which opened in 2010, while other learning takes place in corporate offices and labs. This spring, CAPS will launch a 7,000-square-foot accelerator with a video-conferencing area, rapid prototyping labs and ideation rooms.

Crucial to the start of CAPS was getting in touch with local companies and industries and asking them what they seek in model employees. "We said, 'Tell us what we should be teaching — we need to hear from you as customers,'" Deeds says.

The program has all been financed locally, through a small bond issue, corporate backing and by normal education funding. The program receives corporate backing from Black & Veatch, Garmin, Bayer, Sprint, Cerner, Cisco and IBM.

"We prepare students for the world," Deeds says. "It's possible here to come up with a product that guarantees your college is paid for. The networking skills and contacts extend through college and beyond."

CAPS is itself a work in progress. "We're still prototyping this program," Deeds says. "Any district could do it. And we don't know how far it will go."–Dennis E. Powell

Keywords: youth incubation

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