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Centennial High competition challenges students to pitch product ideas

They spend hours with gizmos and gadgets, though it's unlikely most Howard County high school students spend much time questioning how the products they love go from idea to "must have."

Yet surely some students have pondered whether they, too, could conjure up the next great innovation.

Students from Centennial High School's Future Business Leaders of America organization say they'd like to hear about some of those innovations. They've created the Blue Ocean Competition, an entrepreneurial event that allows student teams to compete by generating an idea, product or service — and an initial plan for how they would bring it to market.

During the competition, scheduled for Saturday, May 31, at Centennial High School, students will give five- to 10-minute presentations to a panel of community and business leaders, who will then query the teams during a question-and-answer session. The competition's name is derived from the Blue Ocean Strategy, based on a 2005 book of the same name by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. The strategy outlines how to create a marketplace for one's ideas rather than competing with others for consumer dollars.

"The whole purpose of the Blue Ocean Strategy is to find the untapped market, find a need that is not being satisfied," said Centennial High School junior Nicholas Benavides, the school's FBLA vice president and Blue Ocean Competition committee chair. "It's about introducing a new product or service or a product or business that's unique in either in the way it's distributed or marketed."

Registration for Centennial's event begins March 7.

On the day of the competition, presentations will be judged by community and business leaders, including Betty Noble, director of the Howard Community College Center for Entrepreneurial & Business Excellence, which hosts a similar competition for its students.

Blue Ocean Competition entrants will compete for three prizes: $600 for first place, $300 for second place and $150 for third place.

Benavides said Centennial will open its competition to all Howard County high school students.

"All the student has to do is create an idea for a product or service," he said. "It can be applicable in any industry or any field. The idea needs to be viable, first and foremost."

Kristin Taylor, Centennial High School's Career and Technical Education instructional team leader, said each presentation will be graded on such areas as innovation and creativity, viability of the idea and quality of the presentation.

"We hope," Taylor said, "that students will be exposed to the various aspects of entrepreneurship and business development [such as] product and service development and differentiation, product launch, presentation and persuasion skills, group collaboration and project management, as well as increase the awareness of FBLA."

To get the word out, Taylor said, Centennial High has sent emails to all Howard County public schools' FBLA advisers, as well as technology education and computer science teachers. She said the school has also sent emails to county high school principals to encourage participation.

It isn't the first time this school year Centennial students have explored the process of taking an idea from concept to product. Taylor said students launched two school businesses this year. The first was a school store that sells supplies, spirit wear and used AP, SAT and ACT books. The second was a coffee delivery business for staff.

"Both businesses have been great starts for learning the aspects of starting and running a business," Taylor said.

Noble said competitions such as Blue Ocean give students opportunities to embrace their creativity while learning such skills as presenting in front of a group, answering questions on the spot and networking.

"Too often, creativity is stifled as they mature and are instructed to do things a certain way," Noble said of students. "As with the business pitch competitions we do here at [the community college], this kind of activity develops competency in oral and written communication, critical thinking and creativity. In this case, students are working on teams so teamwork and collaboration are additional opportunities for development.

"In my view, the younger students are when we begin to facilitate this kind of activity the better," Noble added. "They get to explore being creative, innovative and experience problem solving opportunities before too many 'life challenges' put barriers in their way."

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