The youngsters in Ronni Cohen's entrepreneurship class learn more than what it takes to sell the products they invent. They learn how to sell themselves entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship Educator:
Ronni Cohen, Burnett Elementary School

* * *

A student enrolls in a course titled Economics, Technology, and Entrepreneurship Education and submits the following design abstract for the class's Inventor's Portfolio component:

"Eating pasta has never been easy. Most people won't eat spaghetti dishes at a restaurant because they find it embarrassing to eat. My pasta twirler makes eating spaghetti fun and easy. You'll never have to be embarrassed again."

Before she submits her idea, the student takes pains to complete the homework required of an entrepreneur: initial market research to identify a need; product research and development to meet that need; a determination of the land, labor, and capital requirements of production; and market surveys to hit upon a competitive price as well as a catchy name for the product.

Nothing remarkable there. But what saves the Pasta Twirler from the Annals of Unsung Inventions is the profile of its creator, Jessica McClafferty. Her occupation? She's a student at Burnett Elementary School, in Wilmington, Del. Her age? Ten.

Jessica is among scores of Wilmington students who've been taught entrepreneurship at a tender age by an extraordinary elementary-school teacher, Ronni Cohen. For almost a quarter of a century, "Miss Cohen" -- this year's Entrepreneurship Educator of the Year -- has been enlightening fourth graders about economic concepts such as scarcity, opportunity costs, and profit, and even about the intricacies of the Federal Reserve and the U.S. currency systems.

This year Cohen was one of 85 contenders for the Entrepreneurship Educator award. The judging panels singled her out for her "phenomenal" teaching materials, which she creatively synthesizes from sources as varied as newspaper comic strips and children's books such as The Toothpaste Millionaire. Cohen also won praise for her innovative teaching methods and her devotion to teaching entrepreneurship. She's clearly passionate about the broad impact her techniques can have at a tender age. Here's how she begins the executive summary in her award application: "Elementary-age students are too young for entrepreneurship education. NOT!"

Her style is hands-on, far removed from the rote lecture formula often found in the classroom. "You don't say, 'The definition of demand is... , ' " explains Cohen. "Cooperative-learning groups provide opportunities for collaboration, brainstorming, and collegial exchange." Her students learn by doing. On Market Days the children form "corporations" and sell their "products" in the classroom. They learn how money moves in a program called Bank on It!, using an in-school bank that Cohen persuaded the school (and the bank, Wilmington Trust) to open in the fall of 1992. A unit called EconoM&Mics uses M&M candies to teach business basics such as production of goods and services, sunk costs, competition, and brand-name loyalty. (Two excerpted questions: "What seasonal items illustrate the concept of sunk cost?" "What factors might make you choose M&Ms instead of the store brand?") When asked to make a gadget to solve a problem, Cohen's students devise inventions such as a hamster-propelled ball that mops the floor. And they knock on doors, polling neighbors to determine preferred names for their products.

The junior entrepreneurs meet the kinds of business contacts their grown-up counterparts interact with regularly. Frequent classroom visitors include patent lawyers, bankers, and other businesspeople, as well as the children's parents. "I don't think we can stand at the front of the classroom and lecture any longer," says the 46-year-old teacher. "I don't think we learn that way."

The sponsors of this year's Entrepreneurship Educator of the Year award couldn't agree with her more. Shortly before his death, last August, Ewing Marion Kauffman, benefactor of the Kansas City, Mo., nonprofit foundation bearing his name, decided to devote a portion of his billion-dollar estate to discovering and celebrating the Ronni Cohens of the world. "As he looked at the ills of society, he thought that the best way to create jobs and make healthy communities is to have a strong entrepreneurial base," explains Calvin Ward, associate fellow for training and development at the Kauffman Foundation's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. "One way of encouraging that is through the Educator of the Year award."

As this year's winner, Cohen will receive a $15,000 stipend to spend a summer at the foundation, where she will be given the opportunity to "tweak, revamp, refine, and further develop her teaching innovations," says Ward. The ultimate goal? To disseminate her teachings throughout the country.

Talk about a tough homework assignment. Though entrepreneurship, as an academic subject, has been creeping into curricula since the late 1960s, it has yet to achieve status as a required discipline. Part of the reason is the subject's innate quirkiness. "I've often wondered how you teach a course in entrepreneurship. How do you teach a course on hanging by your fingernails?" quips B. Thomas Golisano, chief executive of Paychex Inc., in Rochester, N.Y., and one of this year's Entrepreneur of the Year judges.

There's a view that entrepreneurship education is hampered by ambivalence; some critics charge that it smacks of corporate control of public education. Still, inroads are being made. The Clinton administration's School-to-Work Initiative is inspiring new business-education partnerships around the country. Two innovative economic and entrepreneurship education programs, KinderEconomy and Mini-Society, are being taught at kindergarten-to-12th-grade levels in an estimated 100,000 classrooms in 40-odd states. Nonprofit business-education organizations like Junior Achievement are upping enrollment in their elementary, middle, and high school programs every year. And entrepreneurship is flourishing as a topic of study at universities and business schools worldwide.

The entrepreneurial nature of entrepreneurship education makes the subject difficult to standardize and incorporate into a national core curriculum. "The reality with any K-12 program is that you're not going to disseminate it nationally until you pilot it somewhere, reveal its benefits with concrete evidence, and make sure it's not dependent just on the teacher's personality," cautions Marilyn Kourilsky, one of this year's Kauffman judges and the creator of the KinderEconomy and Mini-Society programs. Kourilsky, recently appointed vice-president of the foundation's K-12 and community-college division, will oversee the dissemination of Cohen's teachings. She says her primary concerns will be replication and copyright infringement, because Cohen's lessons are derived from a variety of sources.

The Entrepreneur of the Year judges gave Cohen high marks for the creativity of her materials, which, they felt, "are meant to develop a very basic hands-on understanding from everyday life as to how the banking system and other business transactions work."

Student accounts bear this out. In addition to experiencing the life of an inventor last year, Jessica McClafferty received on-the-job training as a bank teller in the school's on-site branch of Wilmington Trust. Jacqui DeLorbe, 10, one of Jessica's classmates, took a shine to supply-and-demand charts while developing her pasta implement, the Wonder Wheel. Her mother, Terry DeLorbe, likes to tell the story of Jacqui's comment at the mall when she wanted two items but had only enough money for one: "My opportunity cost, Mom."

Reports from Cohen's older graduates are equally encouraging. Kelley Heck, a 16-year-old junior at Brandywine High School, in Wilmington, is planning a career in marketing when she finishes school, based on the exposure to the field she received in Miss Cohen's class seven years ago. "The competitions we entered got me used to speaking before people and selling products," she recalls. Heck is a member of Distributive Education Clubs of America, an international group for marketing students.

While Cohen's teaching methods instill an excitement about business in her students, they also convey lessons about failure that any embattled entrepreneur would understand. Unfettered by society's scrutiny, her students are tenacious: if one idea for a business doesn't fly, they eagerly come up with another.

For Cohen, there's much more to her craft than simply training the tycoons of tomorrow. She emphasizes that entrepreneurship goes beyond preparation for business. "Each of us is an entrepreneur, and the good or service we sell is ourselves. You may not have a business, but you still have to sell yourself. That's what entrepreneurship education does. It gives the kids confidence in themselves for whatever they do."


Each year, Miss Cohen devotes a month to Pastamania, an assignment in which students devise a tool to facilitate spaghetti eating. The following entries are excerpted from the inventor's log of Jessica McClafferty.

11/6, 30 minutes: Talked with Mom and Dad about some of my ideas.

11/10, 20 minutes: Got the idea to use clothespins and forks. Tried putting the clothespins and forks together and could not get it to work.

11/12, 20 minutes: Watched my family eating spaghetti and got the idea to use an eggbeater. Started working on taking one apart.

11/14, 90 minutes: Went to library to get ideas from books. Worked more on the eggbeater idea. Didn't like the way it was working.

11/15, 20 minutes: Got an idea from watching Mom washing potatoes with a vegetable brush. Used rubber bands instead of noodles to see if they would stay on the brush. It worked.

11/16, 30 minutes: Thought about ways to use the vegetable brush as part of my invention. Found an old hairbrush. I removed the bristles from the handle. I tested the hairbrush with the rubber bands and it worked.

11/17, 30 minutes: Helped Mom make spaghetti for dinner. Tried using the hairbrush to pick up the noodles.

11/18, 30 minutes: Found an old paint roller. Worked on ways to put the brush on the paint roller. I couldn't think of a way.

11/20, 20 minutes: Used dental floss to tie the brushes to the roller. Needed something to keep the brush and roller from hitting the handle. Dad and I looked around and found the tip of a caulk gun worked.

11/22, 45 minutes: The dental floss was not strong enough. Tried using fishing line. Tested again. Found that it was hard to control the movement of the brush.

11/24, 30 minutes: Changed to a smaller paint roller and glued the brushes to the roller instead of using the fishing line. Looked around the house for something to attach to the brush to help control the rolling. Found the eggbeater and thought the lever would work.

11/25, 20 minutes: Dad helped me remove the eggbeater lever. Needed something small and round to mount the lever to. Found a hubcap on an old lawn mower that was just the right size. Glued the hubcap and lever together and glued to the roller.

11/25, 15 minutes: Tested it and it worked.