How one teacher discovered the perfect teaching tool: a business

Editor's note: Teachers are uniquely inspiring people. It takes a teacher to engage students, bring the classroom alive and turn classroom concepts into lifelong passions. We’re thrilled to celebrate everyday heroes like Matt from High Tech High, whose story is below, at ISTE this year in Denver. If you’ll be at the conference, stop by booth #2511 in the expo hall to demo the latest Google for Education tools. We’ll also be sharing over 50 presentations from educators and Googlers in room #103.

San Diego’s High Tech High encourages its teachers and students to think outside the box. Instead of traditional curricula, the school emphasizes experiential projects and student-teacher equality, like using teachers’ first names in the classroom. These are some of the many reasons why Matt Martin has been teaching chemistry there for 4 years. In keeping with High Tech High’s interdisciplinary approach to learning, Matt’s students aren’t just amateur chemists — they’re entrepreneurs-in-the-making who use knowledge from all of their classes to take on classroom challenges.

Matt wants his students to learn about the real-world applications of chemistry, not just the contents of their textbooks. Matt and his students work together on projects, like the Mad Scientist program, which gives students the opportunity to design their own experiments. When one student had the idea of making soap with sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as lye, Matt saw the potential to turn a one-time experiment into a full-fledged business. All the students needed was a name. They came up with the Wicked Soap Company, an e-commerce business dedicated to handcrafted soaps. With help from some real-world scholars, John Cahalin and Elyse Burden, Wicked Soap Company has grown into a self-sustaining enterprise. While initially only 20 percent of the soap students produced was usable, the class has boosted the number to 80 percent over time.

Matt’s students love working for Wicked Soap Company. It has encouraged them to take pride in the uniqueness of their education. “The soap project was an amazing experience and was the first time I had ever done anything like it,” said one of Matt’s tenth-grade students. “ I became a business strategist, selling soap to people from all around the world and informing them about something that separates us from all chemistry classes.”
Matt Martin, chemistry teacher at High Tech High

A formula for success 

Students were so eager to get involved with Wicked Soap Company that Matt decided to extend the project over multiple semesters. Matt’s 50 chemistry students — and dozens more supporting the company — rely on technology like Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education that let everyone participate and learn together. As technology becomes increasingly vital to education, the guidance and instruction teachers like Matt provide has never been more important.

Many of Matt’s students have also discovered the intersection of their skills and interests. By merging students’ various interests — whether it’s in math or English — Matt created a classroom experience like no other. “I’ve learned so much more than just science, or making soap,” said another tenth-grader, “I’ve also learned about the dynamics of entrepreneurship. There was nothing more satisfying than watching people buy and admire something that I made.” Students haven’t just earned experiences, though — they’ve earned profits.
Student from Matt's class making soap
With Matt’s guidance, students have enthusiastically used Wicked Soap’s profits to give back to their community. They’ve donated over 1,000 bars to local homeless shelters. Students also purchased a motorized wheelchair for a senior student who would attend UC Irvine in the fall. When a community member’s house burned down, students donated all of their income the next day in support. It hasn’t been all work and no play for Wicked Soap’s staff, though. Students have gone on outings they wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise, like a trip to see the Padres take on the Rockies.

There’s no doubt Matt takes an unconventional approach to teaching chemistry, and students are more engaged in the subject as a result. “I walked into this class knowing nothing about chemistry,” said one of Matt’s students. “Now I feel like I have learned so much and am more interested in chemistry. I even want to do experiments on my own time now that I have been introduced and shown how to run an experiment.”

Wicked Soap Company, the fruit of Matt’s Mad Scientist program, shows how it takes a teacher to create engaged, successful students. As a chemistry teacher, Matt didn’t just teach how to make solutions and compounds — he showed his students how to discover their passions.
Wicked Soaps, almost ready for sale
If you’ll be at ISTE in Denver, come visit our Booth #2511 in the Expo Hall and our Session Room #103 to hear more stories like this one.