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‘Weeees’ Sure Are Fun, but Business is Hard

Student-Made Toys End Up Given to Children

A woodshop project can be much more than making something out of wood. A recent enterprise by three students taught them a business lesson in collaboration, marketing and, as it turned out, giving.

Thornapple Kellogg wood production class students were assigned to make a simple product and make as much money as possible selling it. Three ninth-grade girls — Kenzie McManus, McKayla Buehler and Brooke Thompson — created a children’s toy they called a “Weeee.” It was made of three pieces of wood: one wooden stick about 12 inches long and an inch thick; a notched stick; and a small helicopter blade. If you rubbed the plain stick on the notched one, the blade twirled and made noise.

It was fun, but “it was less about woodshop and more about compromising,” said Matthew Melvin, the class instructor. That means getting along, which is going to be a skill they’ll need for any job. “You’ve got to learn how to work together,” Melvin adds. “You have to know what you’re good at, whether it’s building the piece or selling it.”

Getting along with students/coworkers meant agreeing on what they would mass produce that would be profitable, deciding how much money to spend on supplies, and how to market and sell their product. After they paid the costs of the supplies, just like in a business, they would get to keep whatever profit they made from selling it.

The small, teeth-like angles on the toy were time-consuming, and it took about 2 ½ weeks of classes for the girls to make 20 Weeees. Besides the toy, the girls also made wooden spoons and desk organizers, which they sold. The cost of wood to make everything was $50, which they paid back to the school.

For the products of their labors they made $250 in total sales, which split among four people worked out to $44.50 each (a fifth classmate working with them moved away and was given more money because she spent money on supplies).

The sales didn’t go so well; in, fact, they didn’t go at all for the 10 Weeees they had made. They decided to ask the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum if it would want the toys. “We walked in the door and said ‘Do you want these?'” Kenzie said. “And they said ‘yes.'”

Kenzie McManus makes the Weeee toy whirl

Some Turn a Tidy Profit

Melvin has assigned his students the project for three years, during which they’ve made everything from footstools to shelves to cell phone holders. For some, it’s been quite lucrative — one student took home $500 in profits last year.

Students have sold their products on craigslist in the past, while others have put their work in the school store. Several of the wood products made in Melvin’s classes have been so spectacular, businesses have shown interest in hiring the students right out of high school.

“We have had people recruited out of here,” Melvin said. “When they go to contests and display their work, businesses have put their card on their project, asking them to call about potential jobs.”

At a regional school woodshop competition, 34 of 35 Thornapple Kellogg students who entered qualified to go on to the state contest in March.

All of the girls plan to take woodshop again and have ideas about what to do differently next time. The biggest lesson they took away from the assignmentwas probably salesmanship. “You have to make it sound like you need it,” Kenzie said, adding the project also taught her about proposing ideas.

“You tell them how amazing it is and how they have to have it,” McKayla adds.

As amazing as they made the toy sound, it just didn’t sell at the high school. Students learned the importance of building things for your audience, and next year will gear their product more toward fellow classmates.

Also, it wasn’t that easy to operate. Many in the class had a hard time getting the hang of rubbing the two sticks together to make the blade whirl — but that is where the name of the toy came from.

Melvin claimed the reason students weren’t able to get the helicopter blade to twirl was because they weren’t saying “w-e-e-e-e” when they rubbed the sticks together. “Oh, you didn’t say ‘WEEEE’,” he told them with a smirk when they failed to get it twirling.

His goofy instruction didn’t make the toy work, but it did have a lot of students saying “w-e-e-e-e.”


Student Projects in Thornapple Kellogg Woodworking Classes

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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