In the past four years, no Heritage High School team had placed in the top 10 at the state Future Business Leaders of America conference. This year, however, all seven HHS teams finished among the top six in their category.
Five HHS teams scored in the top three, qualifying them to compete this week at the FBLA National Leadership Conference in Anaheim, Calif.
“We came out of nowhere,” said HHS teacher Mary Cooper of the reaction from other schools at the state awards ceremony in Chattanooga. This year, she said, HHS had the right kids at the right time.
“I call them my dream team,” she said. “They’re an amazing group of students.”
They call themselves “Cooper’s Minions,” after the small, yellow workers first seen in the movie “Despicable Me,” characters the teacher enjoys.
Not all students who qualified for the national competition are attending it, but seven will be presenting their work in developing mobile applications, creating 3D animation, designing a website and producing a digital video.
This month two of Cooper’s students, Anthony York and Athena Guinn, competed in 3D Animation at the national SkillsUSA conference, after placing second in the state in that competition.
In January, three HHS teams went to CodeTN, a regional software development competition, and one with all female members finished among the top five.
“I think CodeTN sparked the competitive spirit,” Cooper said. “They had such a positive experience.”
To prepare their software for that competition the students not only met once a week after school but also for two or three hours on Saturday mornings working with an industry mentor.
Students were eager to try new things, and for the first time at FBLA this year HHS had repeat competitors. “They were more seasoned,” Cooper said.
Amanda Smith first took one of Cooper’s web design classes as a freshman. “I have been into arts and crafts and design, and then I really got into coding and design,” said the recent HHS graduate, who plans to study professional communication at Tennessee Technological University.
Working on website design and video production is more than a creative outlet, however. “It really teaches you about logical thinking and problem solving,” Smith said.
Cooper tells her students, “I am not the source of knowledge; I am the provider of opportunities.” She and their fellow students will help them find answers from legitimate sources, but they have to work independently and with their teammates.
Creating the digital video for the FBLA competition required using Premier Pro editing software, for example. “I kind of had to teach myself how to use it,” Smith said.
James Benson, who will be studying software development at Pellissippi State Community College in the fall, grew up using a computer but used Blender 3D animation software for the first time this year.
“They would not be successful without teamwork,” Cooper said. For example, students take the initiative to learn elements they may not work with directly, such as the web programming language HTML. “They commit to learning about each other.”
“The people on your team become a family,” Benson said. “You learn their weaknesses and their strengths.”
“Every single one has stepped up as a leader,” Cooper said.
For the state competition, they had to give seven-minute presentations on their work, and the students prepared by filming and critiquing each other. The students also proved during the competition that they could improvise.
One set of judges noted the poise with which the Graphic Design team handled the situation when their projector died during their presentation, and the HHS team still placed sixth in the state.
When another team saw competitors walking in with a portable stand, they worried the competition room wouldn’t have a table on which to place their equipment and immediately called on each other to “Boy Scout something,” improvising a table from the materials on hand, although it turned out they didn’t need one.
The seven teams also juggled presenting from just two school laptops.
“This is the result of hard work, a lot of out-of-school commitment of time,” Cooper said of the students’ success.
York decided just last year that he wanted to aim to become an animator, and after the competition in California he’ll be going to The DAVE (Digital Animation and Visual Effects) School on the back lot of Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.
“I get to go be judged at Disney, where I want to work one day,” York said of the national FBLA competition.
Despite the hard work and pressure of the competitions, he said, “It’s the most fulfilling thing in the world.”