Spectacular Student Challenge Seeks Special Donors

For the past 4 years, Staples High School students rose to the challenge of solving real-world problems, in real meaningful ways.

In 2010 they figured out how to make Westport a greener community. The next year, it was solving the obesity crisis. Then came a redesign of Staples itself, to prepare teenagers to be true global citizens. Last year, students helped the region prepare for — and recover from — future hurricanes.

These were not school assignments. They were problems students volunteered for. Working in teams of 4 and 5, they tackled them for 12 hours straight — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. On a Saturday or Sunday.

Kids these days!

In 2010, Emily Cooper and Rachel Myers used laptops and food to help make Westport a greener community. (Photo/Julia McNamee)

In 2010, Emily Cooper and Rachel Myers used laptops and food to help make Westport a greener community. (Photo/Julia McNamee)

The event — the Staples Spectacular Student Challenge — is actually far harder than my brief explanations above. The question is not revealed until the moment the contest begins. There’s tons of background, and lots of layers. The obesity question, for example, demanded research into causes, an understanding of societal impact, insights into future trends — plus the creation of a persuasive campaign, a “pitch,” and a research report convincing Westport to follow a healthy lifestyle plan.

Each team was judged on creativity and data analysis. Information had to be well organized, and bibliographically cited.  Visual and multi-media aids were strongly encouraged.

This was education at its finest: Students applied their learning across a wide variety of disciplines to solve open-ended, thought-provoking, real-world challenges. They had to research, analyze, synthesize data — and there were infinite shades of gray.

An all-junior team of (from left) Jack Cody, Baxter Stein, Katie Zhou, Melissa  Beretta and Max Liben take a well-deserved break.

An all-junior team of (from left) Jack Cody, Baxter Stein, Katie Zhou, Melissa Beretta and Max Liben took a well-deserved break last year.

Thanks to the generosity of donors like the Gudis Foundation, Melissa and Doug Bernstein, the Sylvan Learning Center and Green Village Initiative, prize money (used for college scholarships) reached $14,500.

But unless principal John Dodig — who founded the contest, and spearheaded its growth — can find new donors, Staples’ Spectacular Student Challenge will end.

“We are grateful to parents and organizations that have stepped up with generous donations over the years,” Dodig said. “But we should not have to rely on the same few people. I hoped that over time this would be seen as an asset and direct benefit to the business community in Westport. This event is, to me, a concrete example of what we want all high school graduates to be able to do when they become adults and enter the workplace.”

Dodig needs sponsors for the 2014 Spectacular Student Challenge — set for next month. Interested donors can contact him directly: jdodig@westport.k12.ct.us; 203-341-1201.

That’s this year’s challenge.

(To read more about previous Spectacular Student Challenges, click the topic: hurricanes, 21st-century education, obesity, greener Westport.)

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