High school students solve business problems in NWC | News

ORANGE CITY—More than 80 high school students from across the region gathered on the campus of Northwestern College in Orange City on Tuesday to help a real company solve a real problem.

The INNOVATE competition is being held for the fifth year in a row, and this year the sponsor was Demco Products, supplier of Boyden agricultural equipment.

When the student contestants showed up on campus Tuesday morning, they had no idea what problem they would have to solve. They also had no idea who to team up with to solve it.

“It was kind of scary not knowing what I was getting into,” said winning team member Carly Mohning.

She is a student at MOC-Floyd Valley High School and entered the competition along with classmates in her Dutch Designs course, a new marketing course offered at Orange City High School.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Rock Valley High School sophomore Jocelyn Aranda.

Aranda, also a member of the winning team, entered the competition because she is taking an entrepreneurship course.

“It was nice to build relationships with everyone in the group and encourage everyone to talk and be enthusiastic,” Aranda said.

A real world problem

At the beginning of the day’s events, students were grouped into 12 teams of six each, and each team was composed of students from other participating high schools. Six high schools across the region were represented — Boyden-Hull High School in Hull, MOC-Floyd Valley High School, Rock Valley High School, Sioux Center High School, Spencer High School and Western Christian High School in Hull.

The contestants gathered in the De Witt Learning Commons, located on the second floor of Northwestern’s De Witt Library, where Demco representatives asked them to bring a fresh perspective to a real problem facing their business.

“How to market our innovative coupling better?” asked Demco director of corporate culture Darin Partello.

Demc’s EZ Latch line of couplers is designed to simplify the process of connecting a towing vehicle’s hitch to a trailer, he said.

Innovate winners

Aubrie Rabel, Sawyer Bolton, Luke Myers and Carly Mohning stand behind Jocelyn Aranda and Aryana Dokter, who hold the INNOVATE first place trophy. The event was held at Northwestern College last month.

“The advantage of our hitch system is that, basically, when you go to attach a trailer to a truck or whatever vehicle is going to tow that trailer, you eliminate one whole step from the process,” Partello said.

Most couplings require a manual step to attach, but Demc’s line features a composite handle that allows users to attach the ball to the hook in one step, reducing the potential for human or mechanical error, according to Partello.

Demco already advertises its EZ Latch product line, but the students were tasked with increasing brand recognition among consumers and developing marketing strategies tailored to different demographics. Students were also encouraged to consider strategies that could reach untapped markets, including young people, not necessarily associated with the agricultural industry or manufacturing.

“I’ve never heard of a clutch before,” said winning team member Luke Myers. “At first I kept saying coo-pler.”

Myers is a senior at Boyden-Hull, and managed to get the word out in time for the group’s winning presentation.

About a dozen Demco employees, assigned as coaches to each of the teams, were on hand to answer students’ questions — and share their business expertise throughout the day. Two other employees judged the competition.

“We had some coaches floating around at different tables if needed, but that was kind of cool, because they were there to answer the students’ questions, and each coach had their own area that they could lean on to help them solve problems,” Partello said.

Demco’s trainers included some employees from sales and human resources, two from the company’s quality team, and several design and manufacturing engineers.

During the day, students had time to work in groups, collaborating on innovative approaches to the business task that was set before them. After the morning’s joint reflection, each group prepared to present their solutions to the assembled representatives of Demco.


Northwestern business professor Erica Vonk, lead organizer of the competition, said INNOVATE offers a win-win scenario for students and participating companies.

Business leaders get the chance to pick the brains of young people who bring new ideas and imaginative solutions. Students get the opportunity to tackle a real problem, knowing that the solutions they propose could actually be implemented.

“That’s been the added value of this competition year after year – it’s easy for me to ask companies to participate because I can give them past examples of what companies have actually been able to implement,” Vonk said.

The college has partnered with various regional companies during the five years of holding the INNOVATE competition.

Last year, Sioux Center-based Interstates partnered with Northwestern’s business and economics department to sponsor the event, and students were asked to help the company develop youth camps, which expose young people to careers in fields such as programming, project management and engineering. In 2018, the sponsoring partner was Orange City-based Staples Promotional Products, which tasked the students with developing ideas for innovative services that could attract a new customer base.

Vonk is director of Northwestern’s Center for Innovation and Leadership, which develops leadership programs that foster connections between the college and a variety of community partners.

Erica Vonk Innovation

Northwestern College business professor Erica Vonk addresses a crowd of student contestants who visited campus last month to participate in a business competition. The students represented six high schools from the entire region.

Vonk works with the sponsoring company months before the competition, helping the business representatives come up with a problem or question they would like the high school students to help them solve.

“They ask, ‘How can we use young minds to think about something differently? How can we come up with a different answer than what our employees are generating?’” Vonk said.

During their presentations Tuesday afternoon, the students suggested new marketing strategies, including using social media influencers to target young people who might use the hitch to tow recreational equipment like jet skis or boats.

One group suggested offering the connector in a variety of bright colors, which could attract younger buyers in a world full of rainbow-colored Apple products.

The Demco employees present were all ears.

“Even today, I think five of them have already come up to me and said, ‘Hey, we didn’t even think about changing the color on the latch,'” Vonk said Tuesday.

An opportunity to learn

Vonk said high school teachers in the region embraced the competition as an opportunity for students to develop important skills, including critical thinking, clear and effective communication, collaboration and creative problem solving.

“This is a real experience with a real company — you’re helping them solve a real problem or issue or helping them think about something,” Vonk said. “Students don’t always get that in the traditional classroom.”

Winning team member Sawyer Bolton, a MOC-Floyd Valley sophomore, said finding a rhythm as a team was the key to his group’s success. According to Vonk, what stood out to the judges about the winning team was the video they produced, which included a side-by-side demonstration of a typical splicing process and a one-step process using the EZ latch.

“We’ve done a great job of determining who does what so we can improve the group as a whole,” Bolton said.

The group divided duties according to the different interests and gifts of its members. Some team members spoke more, and two with design experience led the creation of a group PowerPoint presentation.

The groups were judged by two representatives from Demc and a representative from the college, who judged the presentations on a range of criteria, including group participation, presentation design and execution, and the value of the team’s business ideas.

Vonk said the soft skills students practice during the day will serve them well in whatever career they pursue.

“How to progress and be part of the team for a day?” Vonk said. “Those are the skills that I think teachers are saying ‘yes’ to.”

Partello said Demco employees will return the student courts to their teams for serious consideration.

“They came up with some excellent ideas and all will be considered for potential,” Partello said. “Everything that came out of the presentations has merit for us.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *