Staples Students Face Spectacular Challenge

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.

Staples Challengers Emily Cooper (left) and Rachel Myers, hard at work. (Photo by Julia McNamee)

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?

Food and drink fuel the brain for Matt LaBarre (left) and Ross Gordon. (Photo by Julia McNamee)

13 responses to “Staples Students Face Spectacular Challenge

  1. Well, I spent my Saturday making 4 gallons of beef stew with potatoes, carrots, onion, leek, parsnips — all natural products and no salt. I also kept the house temperature down and went about with wool cap, scarf and wool sweater on, delivered much stew to son’s family some of whom are down with colds, and started reading a great new book “Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment” about the weather by Tim Brookes of Champlain College. “There is no enlightenmenet on the Weather Channel; if you want to learn about the weather, go out into it,” he suggests.

  2. Terrific posting Dan! What a day. Thanks and congrats all around. Looking forward to Feb 9th and perhaps…enlightenment courtesy of the Staples Spectacular Student Challenge.

  3. Great stuff. Not going to solve large, seemingly intractable problems with conventional thinking…..

    “…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….”

  4. I’m shooting for 3,000.

  5. I congratulate all for both thinking and getting out of the box. Way to go Staples! Now how do we spread the word for others to follow?

  6. I was able to read the question the students were given and Dan’s characterization of it was even more than “waaaay simplified”. Anyone who wants to (perhaps everyone) should give the question a quick read and consider how they would go about giving a credible response to it. Anyone or any team needs a very full kit of tools to even consider how to approach the task and the fact that all groups completed it is impressive.

  7. Bill Scheffler

    Dan — Thanks for writing about the Spectacular Challenge, and for giving us on the outside a feel of what it was like on the inside. Stories like this make paying our real estate taxes, if not a joy, than certainly not a burden. What am amazing system: from time to time, what it accomplishes simply takes one’s breath away.

  8. Good Morning SHS Staff,

    Four years ago, coming home in a limo with five SHS students and Frank Corbo from the first Moody’s Mega Math Challenge, Frank and I were excited at what we had witnessed, very proud of the students’ performance, and thought about the future. We were both convinced that an experience like the one shared by these five Mega Challenge kids should be expanded to a wider student audience. “How could we get more kids involved in solving real world problems using the skills they had learned while in our great school?”

    The more we dreamed about his idea, the more convinced we were that it would be good for students. We knew that the first step would be to find some money to use as prizes to entice students to take the chance. This quest went on for three years until, by chance, I sat next to a parent at a school function bragging about Staples and shared this idea with him. One week later I had a check for $5,000 to help get our Staples challenge off the ground.

    Once we had the money, the hard part had to begin. How would we get this to really happen? Frank shared this idea (PLUS the fact that we now had money) with Trudy Denton, a member of his Math Department. She loved the idea, knew it would be good for kids and said she would like to take this on. I remember hearing her say out loud at a Collaborative Team meeting that she would make this happen “no matter what.” Somehow within weeks she had the help of two more teachers. Julia McNamee from the English Department and Kathy Sharp from the Social Studies Department. This was the equivalent of an Olympic Team in my opinion. From that moment things began to happen in very short order. Trudy shared this idea with Dan Levinson from Westport and he donated another $5,000 with the condition that the problem to be solved be something having to do with the environment and that it be local to Westport. Everyone agreed. “Wouldn’t it be great if the winning team actually saw its solution come to fruition in this own town?”

    Michael Aitkenhead (Mr. Environment in my words) of the Science Department signed on to this dynamic team as they parceled out jobs and started thinking about the question to be posed to students. Kathy bowed out of the question creation part of the monumental plan because her son was on one of the teams. She took on the logistics (which rooms, get the building open, have enough chaperons, make sure there is enough food, etc.). The others with the help of Lis Comm and Frank Corbo worked on the question. Every time I spoke to any of these folks, the excitement was palpable. They knew they were on to something BIG!

    Fast forward to this Saturday when nine teams of students showed up at Staples on the third floor to get the question at exactly nine o’clock. I came at about ten o’clock to see what was happening. A few parent chaperones were present, the table in the Math Suite was full of cookies and the assigned rooms each contained a team of students with laptops, SmartBoards, pencil and paper working on the problem. These brave students worked all day and night. Some of the adults were present for the entire twelve hours. Some others stopped in for their assigned shifts. Pizzas, subs, and more cookies were delivered. The clock ticked slowly for the chaperones but moved at light speed for the students.

    I returned at 8:30 PM because I wanted to witness the end of this remarkable experience. As the big hand approached twelve and the small hand hovered over the nine, kids began streaming out of the classrooms excited, tired, but VERY happy. You had to have seen their faces to know how good they felt about their experience. It was a joyous moment.

    I think that Julia, Kathy, Trudy, and Michael know what they have accomplished and what they have started. They made an idea become reality. They have created the first in a long line of steps leading to Staples providing every student an opportunity to experience what these kids experienced on Saturday. You’ve heard me say a thousand times that I believe this is what all American workers will have to be able to do in order to compete in our new world economy. Teams of people solving difficult problems will ensure our viability as an economic force in the world despite the billions of people in China and India competing against us.

    I can’t thank these hard-working Staples teachers and administrators enough for what they have contributed to Staples. They have seen the equivalent of a baby being born and now will watch it grow bigger and stronger every year from now until they retire. It will be an important part of the Staples experience from now on. THANK YOU Trudy, Julia, Kathy, Michael, Frank and Lis for once again jumping into something ONLY because it is good for kids.


    John M. Dodig
    Staples High School
    FAX 203-341-1202

  9. A huge thanks to the teachers and administrators for organizing this event. I really appreciate the effort and work that was put into this challenge. The Staples’ Challenge is definitely my favorite school organized event and my only regret is that it didn’t exist when I was an underclassman.

    Working with our team for twelve hours straight, we were really able to stretch our creative and cognitive capabilities, fueled by a constant stream of muffins, brownies, cookies and tea. It wasn’t an easy day – but that was the point, that was the aim, that was the fun.

    Sometimes it seems like kids are underestimated.

    Sometimes it seems like school is just boring.

    Sometimes it seems like kids just need a challenge.

    So thank you all. Thank you very much.

  10. So there I was at 9:30 last night standing in the middle of Baskin Robbins with my sophomore son and the other members of the all-sophomore team and their parents. It was maybe 14 degrees outside, but this is where they wanted to be. I think they were so tired — and so giddy — from their 12 hours in one room together that they didn’t notice the cold.

    It was great to see them this way. They figure that they don’t have much of chance of being one of the winning teams. And over lunch today, my son was already coming up with ideas about what they should have done differently. But none of that matters. What does matter is that they shared an amazing experience — thanks to the hard work and planning of a lot of people who clearly care about them and their future.

    Not a bad way to spend a cold January day.

  11. Deirdre O'Farrelly

    Well done and “here’s to you – kids” looking forward to seeing the implementation of your ideas. Westport and the world needs your solutions.

  12. Great project and description captures the excitement. Wish more of these extended projects were a part of the school day for evev more participation.

  13. Pingback: And The Winner Is… « 06880