Nothing — not a formal dance, a major track meet or massive hunger pangs — deters Westport teenagers.
More than 4 dozen Staples students spent 12 hours yesterday — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — researching, analyzing, synthesizing and solving one of the nation’s biggest problems. They did it voluntarily — and made it 1 of the most memorable days of their lives.
A few days ago, “06880” previewed the Staples Spectacular Student Challenge — the 1st-ever school-wide contest for attacking a real-world issue, with a $10,000 prize at stake. “06880” knows a lot — but we didn’t know the issue. Nor did we have any idea how complex the instructions would be.
At 9 yesterday morning, 9 teams of 4-5 students each were handed a 10-page packet. Basically — and this is waaaay simplified — they were charged with making Westport a greener community.
Considering “the culture of our particular community, the history of progressive movements in America, the nature of political systems, current philosophical strands in the Green movement, and the quantifiable impact of proposed changes,” they were asked to determine which of 3 strategies — or combination — would most benefit the town:
- Growing or sourcing food locally
- Initiating household strategies to reduce environmental impacts
- Implementing photovoltaic systems at Staples and Bedford to generate electric power.
This was not a true-false test.
Julia McNamee — a Staples English teacher who, with math instructor Trudy Denton, helped devise and administer the Challenge — updated “06880” frequently. She said:
9:19 a.m. It’s fascinating how differently the groups configure themselves. We hand out the questions, and kids race for their rooms. A group of boys immediately form a circle of desks and chairs. A group largely comprised of girls put desks together in a rectangular bank. A group of very verbal boys reads aloud parts of the question; another group gets laptops up and running, and reads intently on their screens. Another group is spread throughout the room, reading some and talking in between.
10:35 a.m. The teams are getting into the nitty-gritty of this! An entirely sophomore team is considering quitting because the math may be too much; bags of junk food are opened all over their desks as they continue to work hard. Another team is playing opera music over the room’s speakers as they work. A couple of boys who qualified for FCIACs in track leave to compete; maybe that will end up helping! An extra challenge is that many of the juniors went to Counties last night; 1 group of junior boys has taken off running around the 3rd floor to clear their heads!
2:28 p.m. We deliver heros from Fortuna’s and Calise’s. We walk into 1 room with the cart of food, and not one of the 5 boys looks up. “We just had a breakthrough,” one mutters. In another room, kids argue whether to include in their presentation the fact that if 1 person in a family pees into the shower once a day, 1500 gallons of water will be saved annually (something like that). The team that was floundering found new life and is still in it, which is great.
3:45 p.m. Cookie and brownie consumption has quadrupled in the last hour. A sophomore says, “Has it really been 6 1/2 hours? It’s going so quickly!” Two kids on an all-senior team are wrapped in Snugglies; 1 has her hood pulled over her head. A mom trudges in with a load of Starbucks drinks, saying: “My son says I’m the only mom who hasn’t brought anything.” A room of mostly boys looks like the aftermath of a frat party: food, trash, clothing strewn everywhere.
5:13 p.m. A sophomore boy says, “Why won’t GE tell me how much their turbines cost?” A room of seniors puts a sign on the door: “Don’t forget about us! We want food!” Pizzas are on order from Arcudi’s and Angelina’s.
8:46 p.m. Two boys type away in tandem. One says, “J. Robert Oppenheimer is THE man,” as they quote him in their paper. Another group cites “06880” (ahem). A trio of junior girls dance around the chalkboard, scrawling math on the board. In every room, every wall surface is covered with equations, plans, proposals — blackboards, whiteboards, Smartboards. Literally everything. I hear: “I’m freaking out, I’m freaking out, just 25 minutes left.” One group writes advice to next year’s group: “Time goes fast — make sure not to slack.”
Finally, at 9 p.m., it was all over. All teams finished — which Julia McNamee called “amazing, considering 2 were all sophomore and another was 4/5 sophomores.” Teams whooped, cheered and danced in the halls.
Each team’s 10-page paper — with quantitative report — was submitted on hard copy. So was an electronic response, including links to websites for graphics. The writing, they hoped, was “of the highest caliber” — I’m quoting the rules here — with a “complete and detailed solution,” including technical details, balance and consistency.
So are they done? Nope.
A panel of judges convenes next week to determine the top teams. They’ll be invited to present their solutions — and answer questions — at a public forum on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Those presentations will be evaluated by a panel of community experts. The top 3 teams there will divide scholarships of $5,000, $3,500 and $1,500 respectively. (The $10,000 total was raised thanks to a private donor and Westport’s Green Village Initiative.)
And how did you spend your Saturday?