“Who has time to make a mock-up for me?” NextGen Bears co-CEO and senior Katlyn Kyar asks the group of students sitting at meeting tables. The students quickly learn what a mock-up is and begin working on various tasks to fill their orders for the week. One of their orders includes four letters, each weighing 40 pounds, for the Minnesota School Boards Association conference where they are presenting. This is the formation of entrepreneurs at Bertha-Hewitt Public Schools.

With the NextGen Bears entrepreneurship program in its first official year, students are busy using a laser engraver, 3D printer and plasma cutter as well as designing products and communicating with clients on a daily basis. Superintendent Eric Koep formed the program for students to find motivation and a reason to attend school more when the senior slide hits.

The program includes three main businesses: Lakes Country Sign Pros, School Spirit Signs and Pure Goodness Bath & Body. The lake signs are the biggest seller, with over 200 sold since the start of the 2019-20 school year, according to Koep. The school spirit signs have also made a large splash as the NDSU Bison signs are sold at Scheels.

“That was big. That was nerve wracking, honestly. I didn’t quite understand what was going on until about the second or third email. It was a little bit confusing but we got it done,” Kyar said.

The product is one that Scheels assistant store leader Michael Simmons said is part of a “great” partnership with Koep and the school. Scheels has not partnered “a lot” with other area schools to sell products, to Simmons' knowledge.

“We liked the product that they made and decided to give it a shot. It has worked out very well so far. I love the product because it is something different (than) most people have,” Simmons said in an email.

With ranges of products, students work in areas that interest them and grow their professional skills. For Kyar, she enjoys writing and has learned the soft skills of professional email writing. For social media manager and senior Kenny Hegarty, he finds he is becoming more of a people person as he builds on his communication skills, which he hopes to use in a future music production career.

“I like that we have more freedom than just sitting in a class, and it’s like an actual business so you learn skills that you wouldn’t sometimes in normal classes,” Hegarty said.

The students work together during the fourth and fifth hour of the school day, beginning with a team meeting to discuss and assign orders for the week, review previous orders for quality control and answer questions. Lead social media manager and senior Shelby Bakken and Kyar see the value in teamwork and asking when you don’t know how to do something.

“It’s a lot of working with the team to figure out the problems that need to be solved. So, say we have an issue with our website, I’ll be able to sit down with our website guy and our social media and figure that out as a team, it’s not like one person is doing this and no one else has any idea,” Kyar said.

Koep also hopes to impart entrepreneurial values, such as the work ethic needed, in the students as he has an entrepreneurial and business background. His family has owned Urbank Live Bait Company since 1946.

“I’m trying to teach kids (entrepreneurship) lessons and just give them ideas that they can do when they graduate. We have kids now that want to go to school for this kind of stuff or they’re debating buying their … own machines and making their own products themselves,” Koep said.

The machines the students use currently cost “close to $80,000,” which the district purchased over a period of three years using district funds and grants, according to Koep. The money made from the products sold goes to paying off the cost of the machines and to paying students if they work during the summer or after school. Koep also hopes to have a scholarship for the students in the program.

One of the projects senior Cody Shamp designed with the 3D printer was a ball for a model hip at Tri-County Health Care, “so now when patients go in there for a hip replacement and they explain how they replace the hip, my design’s on the hip.” He has also learned patience and the ability to notice small details that need fixing as a product designer in the entrepreneurship program, as well as the frustrations that come with this position.

“It’s pretty frustrating sometimes because as a designer you send the product out to the whoever you’re making it for and then they tell you, … it could be something you’ve been working on for five, six hours and then they can come back and tell you, ‘No, that’s not what I want.’ And that’s pretty rough, but I just got to go back and do it again and get it to how they want it and stuff,” Shamp said.

The entrepreneurship program is showing students the value of communication, failing and becoming better so that schools around Bertha-Hewitt can also be better, according to Koep.

Koep spoke highly of the students, including those who have seen success in securing contracts, designing and simply improved attitudes and attendance at school.

“Just being a part of this program has really helped kids come to school more, want to come to school and it’s affected their other classes as well. Teachers are seeing kids more confident, communicating more because of this program and also, what I was hoping this would do, is it helps our sophomores and freshmen do better at school so they can be in this program,” Koep said.

For information on the products, visit https://sites.google.com/isd786.org/nextgen/welcome.