Some New Jersey fifth graders are showing their smarts by coming up with an idea for a face covering that helps people cope with the stress of the pandemic. The budding entrepreneurs are even getting help bringing the idea to life, thanks to the connections their school principal has with Montclair State, as both an alumnus and an adjunct professor in Educational Leadership.
After the pupils won a virtual Shark Tank-style pitch competition, Principal Harold Abraham ’11, ’15 MA invited recent alumni from the University’s Fashion Studies program to continue working with his students to create a prototype of a mask infused with essential oils. The idea, the students say, is to help the wearer “feel safe, comfortable and calm.”
It’s much like what Abraham did in preparing his school for the return of students in the fall at Sandyston-Walpack School in Sussex County, New Jersey.
“I can’t tell you how many vendors for PPE we met with, measuring our classrooms, measuring our hallways, our cafeteria and the outdoor spaces, working with facilities and grounds to make sure that students would be socially distanced at all times, figuring out how many students we could have in a classroom, how many we could have in a lunch period,” Abraham says. Students on rotating days attend school on Zoom or in class wearing masks and studying at desks with plexiglass tri-fold barriers.
“My goal is creating experiences for kids that they’ll never forget,” he says.
But the coronavirus has made creating opportunities for the extraordinary especially challenging. “Now is really more of an important time than ever to kind of think outside the box,” Abraham says.
When the principal learned of the SuitUp New Jersey Business competition, a program that matches company employees with students to solve real corporate challenges, Abraham entered the school as a way to expose the students to other forms of learning.
Competing against middle schools from throughout the state, students designed products, developed a marketing strategy and financing, and pitched their idea to a panel of judges.
Members of “Team superMASK” came up with the idea for a Dri-FIT fabric face covering infused with essential oils. The judges called the students’ innovation “overwhelmingly relevant for today’s day and age” and praised its potential as a viable product for consumers.
The success made a huge impact. “I learned today I can be a CEO,” remarked a Sandyston-Walpack fifth grader, Emma McEvilly.
“The students wanted to develop something that would make a lasting impact on the people around them,” Abraham says. “It’s one thing to design a beautiful garment that people will admire from an aesthetic perspective, but if you create something that is going to help people, and can also look aesthetically pleasing, then you’re really on to something.”
Enter Montclair State’s Fashion Studies program. Meeting over Zoom, Hannah Salvaryn ’20 and Vincent Villapando ’20, have been leading the students through the creative process and helping them understand all the decisions that come into play – from sizing and fabric choices to where to place the pocket for oils. They say they have enjoyed the experience.
“It reminds me that anything is possible, even the impossible,” says Salvaryn, “because talking with the students makes me believe their idea can come to life. Younger children have an ‘I can do it’ type of attitude. It’s something I hope they can keep with them as they grow older.”
On a recent call, the students started thinking even more about marketing and how to promote the product. They asked one of their teammates to sing and write a jingle. They worried about the costs of materials and who holds the rights to their design. They wondered if a major company would ultimately buy the idea.
Fifth grader Dustin Slyman suggested a slogan, adapting Nike’s legendary “Just Do It” to pitch their masks, “Just Wear It.”
“The students are a testament to the community we have,” Abraham says. “Our students, even in fifth grade, had the wherewithal to go beyond that, to develop something that I think most would consider valuable to the community because it’s so needed. I think that’s the greatest takeaway from the competition.”
Story by staff writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren
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