Students in the fourth grade at The Lamplighter School in Dallas, Texas, have the unique opportunity to run a corporation throughout their “senior year” at the school. Earlier this school year, student leaders encountered a real-world business problem that required careful analysis, diligence, and creativity to get the corporation back on track to achieving its profitability goals.
The Lamplighter Layers Corporation
Since 1970, the school’s fourth-grade students have managed The Lamplighter Layers, a chicken-raising and egg-selling business, which began with the goals of providing young students the opportunity to practice cooperation, communication, respect, and responsibility in an entrepreneurial format.
The Lamplighter Layers Corporation is modeled on standard business structure and practices, even incorporating Robert’s Rules of Order to guide monthly meetings in which egg production, finances, marketing, and philanthropy are discussed. Every fourth-grade student is an active participant in the business, serving in roles including stockholder, manager, and employee. The eggs are sold on Fridays during carpool pickup at the School, and at the end of the year, student stockholders have voted to share a portion of their dividends with charities such as UNICEF, the World Wildlife Fund, and Scottish Rite Hospital. Student business managers count on these funds so that the Corporation is able to make a meaningful donation to an organization at the end of each school year.
Following a capital campaign to enhance the school’s facilities and programs, Lamplighter completed construction of a new Barn and adjacent chicken coop last May. At the start of the 2017 to 2018 school year, the fourth-grade students were the first to experience the new barn as the hub of the Lamplighter Layers program.
But as with many new ‘homes,’ the students soon discovered that the chickens might need some help in adjusting to their new environment. Students observed that the chickens were laying eggs anywhere and everywhere — instead of on the roosting shelves in the coop. Eggs were found on the floor, where they could be stepped on, missed by the egg collectors, or eaten by the chickens. Even when the chickens did use their shelves for laying eggs, the eggs often rolled off and cracked because there was no lip on the roosting shelves to safeguard the eggs.
Unfortunately, Lamplighter Layers was not able to sell a significant number of eggs due to damage, which cost the Corporation about one-third of its profit. The Corporation was barely selling enough eggs to cover its expenses. The student business managers quickly deduced that if the Corporation was not able to sell more eggs, it might not be able to cover its expenses going forward. And, if Layers could not afford its expenses, it would not be able to feed, water, or keep the chickens in the Barn, thus requiring the Corporation to sell the flock. Without the chickens, Lamplighter Layers would go bankrupt, and would not be able to recover the stock money put into the company!
It didn’t take long for the students to realize that their unique opportunity as fourth-grade business managers was in jeopardy. Knowing that maintaining healthy egg production was a crucial part of keeping the Lamplighter Layers business afloat, the students were highly motivated to tackle the challenge to help save the Corporation.
Saving the Corporation Through a Partnership with SMU’s Design & Innovation Team
With the guidance of their faculty advisors, the Layers organization voted to make new nesting boxes for the chickens and to utilize the Human-Center Design process to address the problem. Through a partnership with SMU’s Design & Innovation team, the Lamplighter fourth-grade faculty was already undergoing training and coaching on integrating design and making into their classrooms when the Layers’ chicken coop challenge emerged. Even though the problem involved chickens — not humans — there were observable behaviors to design for, so the process was still relevant.
Students engaged in the five-step process of Human-Centered Design: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. After making careful observations about the chickens’ behavior and defining the problem, students consulted books and online resources to find out what makes nesting boxes comfortable so that the chickens would be motivated to lay eggs in the boxes. Their research served as a basis for designing a nesting box diagram, which was then used to build a prototype out of cardboard. Students tested the cardboard prototype in the chicken coop and quickly discovered that chickens did, in fact, lay eggs in the new box!
Based on the initial success of the prototype, the fourth-graders felt empowered to solve the problem. These student business leaders realized that their new design showed promise of success, but also recognized that the business needed financial resources to get the Corporation back on track. At this stage, the students created a proposal and presentation for members of The Lamplighter School Leadership team. The students crafted a PowerPoint presentation which outlined the problem in the chicken coop and their proposal to fix it. Students presented to senior management asking for both funding to build the new nesting boxes, as well as curriculum time during Woodworking class to work on construction. Students soon found themselves standing in front of school leadership saying, “this is a problem, we can prove it, and here’s a solution.”
Based on their well-researched and well-communicated proposal, the students were granted a loan from the facilities department to the Lamplighter Layers Corporation. Students also gained approval to use their woodworking class time to construct the new nesting boxes. Over the course of the next six woodworking sessions, fourth-graders worked in small teams to carefully measure, design, and build the new nesting boxes.
Lamplighter Layers Back On Track
Once 12 new boxes with a safety lip were constructed, students installed them in the chicken coop. Almost immediately, students exclaimed, “They’re working, they’re working!” as they observed the chickens using the new nesting boxes.
Moreover, one student remarked, “the chickens seem happier,” while reflecting on the Empathy piece of the Human-Centered Design process. Being process-driven and using design methods helped teachers and students navigate the project and get to real positive outcomes.
With the new nesting boxes, egg output has returned to normal levels and Lamplighter Layers is back on track financially, well positioned to meet its profitability goals for the year. Fourth-grade teacher Jody Stout noted, “The process had such powerful learning outcomes. Students believed in the process, had the mindset of problem-solvers, and tackled a new problem with optimism, teamwork and critical thinking and inference.”
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