By JOHN T. WARD
It’s a rare business that gets to take the summer off. But a startup run by Fair Haven fifth-and sixth-graders has earned some slack time after landing and delivering on a legit $1,000 manufacturing contract this past school year with San Francisco-based Slack.
And it all revolved around a faddish chill-out device called a fidget spinner.
For those unfamiliar with the fidget spinner, its a simple handheld device with three prongs that the user spins around a center wheel. Think of it as an equivalent of pencil-twirling without the functionality of a writing implement.
While legend has it the device was created to help people with Attention Deficit Disorder focus, its inventor said in a recent interview that she created the spinner after she saw young boys throwing rocks at police in Israel, and thought the kids needed a way to release pent-up energy.
In recent months, the now-off-patent spinners went viral, prompting some schools around the country to ban them as a distraction to learning. But the fifth- and sixth-graders at Fair Haven’s Knollwood School, running a business called FH Gizmos, recently landed a paying contract to produce a customized version of the spinners for up-and-coming tech player Slack.
The class is part of the school district’s response to new state education standards that call for children to learn career awareness and entrepreneurship, said teacher Chris Aviles, who co-leads the school’s Innovation Lab with teacher Katie Smith.
“I could teach this new curriculum with boring worksheets, but I want to do better for our kids,” Aviles said. “I wanted students to have the authentic experience of running their own business, so in January, 2016, we started one.”
The students didn’t set out to get into the fidget spinner business. But a fortuitous contact with the folks at Slack, a fast-growing business communication app, turned into an opportunity that they jumped on, Aviles said
As part of the curriculum, students are encouraged to learn how to share their work digitally, and one of the standards aims to teach children about using “asynchronous communication.” That’s what Slack offers: the ability of work colleagues to share information without need to be signed into the Twitter-like platform at the same time.
Aviles told redbankgreen that he reached out to Slack to see if the students could get an account for their business. The answer: no, Slack doesn’t make its service available to users that young.
But company officials were curious about the inquiry, and when Aviles told them about the class, Slack came back with a request: we need a ‘toy’ to offer new hires to help them focus as they settle in at the corporate learning center. The toy would be included in a goodie bag that also includes a company t-shirt, decals and other items. Could FH Gizmos come up with one?
The request provided a real-life chance for the class to do what real businesses do, said Aviles. So students embarked on a design process that began with students trying to “empathize” with the client in order to understand the challenge, said seventh-grader Hailey Blum.
“Empathizing is a big thing with FH Gizmos, and that is one of the hardest steps for a lot of these kids, because you have to care about other people and really, like, feel their feelings,” she told redbankgreen. “That’s hard, because these days we really care a lot about ourselves.”
The process led to the creation of about 30 prototype toys made with popsicle sticks, string, bottle caps and other common objects. Among them: foot-tappers, hand-tappers and a literal laundry basket of discarded prototypes of devices created on a 3-D printer in the school’s media center.
Teachers and administrators helped beta-test the devices for usefulness. Then the class narrowed the inventions down to 12 they thought feasible and shipped them off to San Francisco, where Slack employees chose an S-shaped fidget spinner — and placed an order for 50, at $20 a pop.
Why wouldn’t Slack just buy the items off the shelf?
“They wanted something unique, something that shows ‘Slack,'” said Hailey. The design the class came up with includes Slack’s hashtag logo engraved on the toys.
After going through “the whole design feedback cycle” with Slack, the class had the component parts of the fidget spinners custom-manufactured by an Arizona company run and staffed by military veterans, Aviles said. The class then assembled the devices for shipment.
“We know how important it is for kids to learn entrepreneurial skills early, and we are so impressed with the hard work of these future business men and women at Knollwood School,” Slack said in a prepared statement.
Representatives of Barnes and Noble and Tinkercad, the vendor of a 3-D design app used at the school, have also expressed interest in getting their own custom fidget spinners, Aviles said.
Hailey and classmate Milana Strulowitz led redbankgreen on a recent tour of the company, with work teams clustered around tables in the school’s media center. They include a the package-design team and an advertising department.
“We were looking for ways to advertise the company, and we thought one way to do that was to take pictures and put them on a website,” said Milena. Aviles built the FH Gizmos website, and a “squad” of photographers in the class is responsible for coming up with images for it.
Operating under the slogan, “Your Problem, Our Project,” which was coined by a student, FH Gizmos steers 25 percent of its profit into FH Gives, the company’s charitable-giving. And along with FH Grows, a hydroponics technology program for seventh-graders, they’re all under the umbrella of FH Innovates.
Eighth-graders are engaged in yet another operation, called FH Leads, which starting in November will offer for-hire consulting to help local businesses solve their problems. It’s already lined up some prospective clients, including Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, said Aviles.
FH Leads “is very cool, because you’re not just working in school,” said Milana. “You can go around town and do different things.” It’s also the final piece of a innovation curriculum that begins with fourth-graders learning the fundamentals of design, Aviles said.
“By eighth grade, I want them doing hands-on design for businesses,” he said. “That’s how I’m introducing them to business and careers. Instead of just having guest speakers come in, I want to get them out into the real world.”
And what becomes of FH Gizmos over the summer?
“Oh, well, actually, I don’t know, because I’m not here during the summer,” said Hailey.
“We didn’t learn about that yet,” added Milana.