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Coming clean with chemistry

Hands-on soap project teaches students real-world skills

Forest Hills — What started three years ago as a way to make chemistry a bit more interesting has turned into a multi-year project that has the potential to be a self-sustaining business. And it’s run from start to finish by Forest Hills high school students.

This year, 34 students from Northern, Central and Eastern high schools have spent part of their school days at STEM Academy, housed at Northern. What is becoming a signature project of the program is the creation, organization, packaging, marketing and selling of their own line of soaps in multiple shapes, colors and scents.

Participants in grades 9-12 study the chemistry of making cold-processed body bars and don safety goggles for the actual production of “Handmade in the Hills” products. They also choose a department to join, such as sales, cost analysis and inventory, and keep that work going all year.

Or, as sophomore Penelope O’Meara wrote in her project portfolio, it is an effort to “uncover the chemistry behind saponification to help create an eco-friendly, 21st century side hustle.”

Sophomore Aubrey Winczewski is on the finance team. She keeps track of sales and expenses via a spreadsheet. 

“I like the math aspect,” she said. “It also was, we had to figure out how to get the materials, so we had to look at vendors who had materials that don’t harm the environment and were not too expensive.”

Sophomore Jackson Befus admits he’s a natural-born salesman, and said he would be willing to teach his peers the art of persuasion. He has pushed more product than pretty much anyone else – about 50 bars. Neighborhood Facebook posts were a big hit, he said, but a good old-fashioned gift of gab was also key.

“I just went up and talked to pretty much everyone: I went into classrooms, approached teachers. What I did was learn about people; maybe someone’s birthday was coming up so I would talk to their friends about buying it as a gift. And we found out that our soap is really good for acne, so I would include it in the conversations.” 

STEM Academy sophomores and soap-making pros, from left, Aaron Knibbe, Nick Kuhn and William Venneman

Chemistry and Then Some

Chemistry teacher Austin Krieg said the effort is an offshoot of a manufacturing project all 112 sophomore Project Next students began before Thanksgiving in 2019.

“We were talking about how we could make chemistry more tangible, less of a lab, and one of the most simple ideas was soap-making,” he said. “Our emphasis was manufacturing, so we decided to produce a product so the students could go through the iterative learning process, do things multiple times, figure out where they made errors and produce higher-quality, finished products. 

“That is something that’s a passion of ours: finding and helping kids develop a career path.”

Industrial arts teacher Eric Baird also is involved, and art teachers at Northern are helping students make kiln-fired, one-of-a-kind soap dishes to sell as accessories. To that end, STEM Academy students are working on a homemade glaze for their product that can also be used by art students.

The effort involves math, certainly, in refining the amounts of ingredients, exploring chemical reactions, creating 3D molds for imprints on the soaps and laser-cut display stands using a CNC machine, performing cost analyses to determine how much to charge, and tracking sales.

See: Sophomore Penelope O’Meara’s STEM Academy portfolio

Students also have refined tactics from year to year through product and packaging design, marketing, writing sales pitches and conducting market research and focus groups to target potential customers. Professionals from those areas have spoken to and advised students.

Sophomore Hrishikaa Bhargave is on the production and inventory team, which is responsible for maintaining the balance of materials on hand with demand. She knows from experience that out-of-stock is a real thing. 

“There was a point where one person bought like 20 bars of peppermint yin yang in one order,” Hrishikaa recalled. Improving what past teams had done motivated her to do more, she said. “I was like, ‘Yay, we did something.’”

“That is something that’s a passion of ours: finding and helping kids develop a career path.”

— Chemistry teacher Austin Krieg

The effort did not cease during pandemic school shutdowns. Several students over the past two years used at-home kits and supplies funded by a grant from the Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation, and drive-up sales were held. Krieg said business planning by those students “laid a lot of the groundwork” for what students have accomplished this school year.

And this year, students learned that philanthropy skills can be honed as well: 100 bars of soap were donated to Well House GR, a program to support people experiencing homelessness.

Practical Application

At the beginning, the hope was to at least recoup the cost of materials by selling their soaps at Northern High and other district schools. Krieg said in the three years since the effort began, sales have increased pretty sharply; in three months this year they sold some $3,500 worth of soap.

That has made Krieg and Baird think, Krieg said: “If we’re going to be spending all this money on machines (for STEM and NEXT) we should try to make the programs economically self-sufficient. We can generate the money for the experiences we want students to have.”

As for the process of making soap, “I almost feel like it’s a victory when they forget that (the actual soap-making process) is chemistry,” he said. 

STEM Academy students held a drive-through Mother’s Day soap sale

Preparation for real-world application is always the overarching goal.

“I like seeing kids engaged with a process that they know has practical application so they can see the value of what they are doing right now. Anytime you see an authenticity rubric, entrepreneurship is at the top of the list.”

Krieg continued: “We want them to learn how to figure things out. A lot of the feedback (teachers) get from industry professionals is that (high-schoolers) are not ready, and they really highlight that the skills kids need most is being able to communicate, to work in groups and alone, and how to break a big goal into smaller tasks. 

“The technical stuff, that can always be taught. Through (Project NEXT and STEM Academy) they can show employers, ‘I know how to organize things, I can document my processes, I can advocate for myself.’ Those are what industries are looking for.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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