Employability Through Externships and Entrepreneurship offer GHS students real-world business experiences
Vicki Hales walks quietly around her classroom on the second floor of Gilbert High School, stopping every few steps to have hushed conversations with pockets of students sitting at computers. Each chat lasts no longer than a minute or two before she moves on to the next group.
This isn’t your typical classroom. Hales isn’t at the front of the room near a chalkboard, nor is she submitting her students to a lecture with note taking. Hales intentionally sets this class up more like a business because, well, that’s who these students are actually working for.
Welcome to Employability through Externships — a unique class that offers high school students opportunities to join the real world of business while earning high school credits.
“What excites me about teaching business is being able to give these kids real-world experience and make sure they really do know what’s next after they’re done with education,” Hales said. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that.”
Employability through Externships — colloquially known as Em2Ex — is in its second year of existence at GHS, and it was brought here by Hales, who taught a similar class at Ames High School before she joined the Gilbert staff.
Essentially, Hales and her students solicit area businesses for projects they need done. Whether it’s help with marketing on social media, or perhaps a video project to help bring in customers, or any number of projects — her students are willing to tackle them for the area businesses.
It’s a win-win scenario. For the business, it gets a project taken off its plate without devoting its own time and energy. For the students, they get firsthand exposure to the business environment that will help them down the road as they prepare for life after school.
“My ask of these businesses is always, ‘Do you have any projects that you would be willing to let 11th and 12th graders try their hand at,’” Hales said. “It’s awesome if the (business) can use it. If not, it’s still a great learning experience for these kids. They’re learning all sorts of skills. They’re learning the actual hands-on skills, but they’re also learning about communication, problem-solving, and they’re having to be creative in different ways.”
Students have performed duties for various businesses throughout the area and have tackled projects for the school as well. Joey Currans, a current senior who is back for a second year with Hales in an advanced employability class, was part of a team who worked with Permanent Christmas Lights in Ames to help streamline their business practice.
“They wanted to go completely paperless,” Hales explained. “When they reached out to customers, they wanted to be able to give them a paperless quote. They wanted to give them an invoice by email, and have all of these papers talk to each other. So I had a group that had to figure out spreadsheets and all of the formulas, and that’s a beast all on its own. But then they wanted to take it a step further and connect it to Google Maps, so there was some coding involved.”
Currans grins slightly as he leans back in his chair and thinks back to that project. It was tough, he admitted, but extremely rewarding. A hopeful future business owner, Currans says the Em2Ex classes give him the chance to learn things at an early age that might not happen in the classroom setting.
“It’s cool to work with businesses and people in the community,” he said. “I’ve also done some marketing projects and it’s a snippet of what you’d actually do, and I get to see the business behind everything. And all of my projects are being used, so that’s cool too.”
Sophie Chitty and Jack Hackett, both seniors, sit at two computer terminals in the back of the classroom discussing their own projects. They have similar, and different, thoughts when it comes to the class. Both say it’s incredibly beneficial to learning about the business world and it’s also a great advisement tool for the future. While Chitty says it’s only validated her desire to enter the business sector, Hackett says it’s proven to him that business isn’t his preferred career path.
“We have little projects that we do every day and it’s not like Mrs. Hales is telling us exactly what to do,” Chitty said. “It’s us taking charge and making sure we’re being consistent. I really like the freedom and I feel like I’m getting experience for the real world.
“I’m going to Iowa State for graphic design and I’m going to minor in either general business or marketing, so this is a really good step. I think (Em2Ex) is going to be super helpful for the next few years because there’s not going to be somebody to hold my hand throughout college. And I think people will like someone who can take charge.”
Said Hackett: “This helps us get a jumpstart into the future, but business is not what I want to go into. But even if you’re not going into business, it’s still a good class. It has skills you’ll need in all professions like emailing, etiquette, and communication skills.”
Hales said the experience generated for her students is crucial, but so is the career aspect. If her students take the class and know they want to get into business, great. And if not? That’s great also.
“I try to give kids all sorts of different experiences with the idea of let’s try it because you never know,” she said. “You have kids that might have no idea what they want to do, which is very common. I had one kid at Ames who didn’t know what he wanted to do, but found out he was really good at video production. It’s not what he ultimately wanted to do, but he started a video production business to help him pay his way through college. I had another student who really wanted to be in marketing. He took on a marketing project and realized he absolutely hated it, which is just as valuable.”
Through the ups and downs, the wins and losses, the students are learning valuable lessons along the way. The key part of that — they’re learning. Every single day.
During the spring semester, Hales teaches Entrepreneurship, formerly known as Principals of Business, that adds another element into real-world business learning. Rather than work with already established businesses, this class allows students the freedom to create their own small businesses from the ground up.
Think of it this way: in Em2Ex, students are consultants. In Entrepreneurship, students are the boss.
“This one is probably more work, yes,” Hales said. “Primarily because when you start a business, you’re typically not doing that in 20 weeks. That’s not reality, but here we are crunching it into a very short time frame.”
During the spring of 2023, the Entrepreneurship class held its first-ever Market Day, where students — either as an individual or in groups — were able to display and sell their products or services to potential clients.
Some students sold baked goods. One group created a T-shirt printing business. Another group created tote bags. One of Hales’ more memorable small businesses was a group of students who utilized downed trees from the derecho to create wood-working projects. One of the top sellers was a set of laser-engraved coasters.
“They were high-quality projects, so that was super cool,” Hales said.
Starting something from the ground up and taking it all the way to market was eye-opening for students. Some enjoyed the freedom that came from being their own bosses. Others realized being a business owner wasn’t as enjoyable as they envisioned. Again, that’s a wonderful learning tool at such a young age.
“Some say, ‘oh, I could see myself doing this,’ and some said, ‘I could not see myself doing this,’ but maybe they like the marketing aspects or how the financing works,” Hales said. “They see almost every single part of a business.”
Hales’ eyes light up as she talks about her students and reminisces on the projects they’ve created or the established businesses they’ve worked with. This is why she got into education. This is why she enjoys being a part of the Gilbert Schools faculty. She has students who are willing and eager to learn. Not just for today, but for their future.
“When you have that kid who has that moment of, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ and then they realize they’re actually good at this … those are big wins,” Hales said.