Tag Archives: Staples Spectacular Student Challenge

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.)

Spectacular Staples Students Save Seaside Heights

You can’t keep some kids away from Staples High School.

Even on Sunday.

Last week — at the teen-ungodly hour of 8 a.m. (really 7; it was the day the clocks changed) — 52 students gathered for the 4th annual Staples Spectacular Student Challenge.

The Stapleites — including, for the 1st time, 5 freshmen — had 12 hours to read, analyze, research, synthesize, and finally solve, a real-world problem.

Welcome to education, 2013-style.

And this being 2013, the problem involved natural disasters.

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 take a well-deserved break.

The students were asked to use Seaside Heights, New Jersey — an area ravaged by Hurricane Sandy — as a case study. Their challenge was to recommend ways that coastal towns and regions can prepare for — and recover from — future hurricanes.

Working in teams of 4 and 5, they had to first:

  • Quantify the financial impact of storm damage to individuals, businesses and infrastructure
  • Find out how the damage was addressed, and
  • Determine how recovery programs were funded, and assess their effectiveness.

That was only Part 1.

Next came the task of developing a plan to abate the effects of future hurricanes on Seaside Heights, and provide aid. Students had to:

  • Consider the role of prevention and response on regional, municipal and personal levels
  • Figure out the social, legal and financial implications of their plans
  • Include a cost/benefit analysis of their recommendations, including implications for the community, state, region and nation
  • Consider how to sell the plan to the community
  • Advise how the plan could be implemented by other shoreline communities.

All by 8 p.m. that night.

Juniors (from left) Nick Stern, Tyler Marks and Connor Mitnick solve the hurricane problem. Not pictured:  Ben Goldschleger.

Juniors (from left) Nick Stern, Tyler Marks and Connor Mitnick solve the hurricane problem. Not pictured: Ben Goldschleger.

Though President Obama, Congress, Governor Christie, FEMA, and bajillions of other people have worked steadily on this issue since October, the Staples students were undaunted.

Using the internet; skills gained in math, science, history, social studies and many other classes; collaboration, and their own very significant brains, they produced an enormous range of responses.

Those will be examined closely, by a panel of judges. The top teams will make formal presentations next month — adding “communication skills” to the long list of criteria students are expected to master in 2013.

The 52 teenagers who competed in this year’s Spectacular Student Challenge were there for a variety of reasons. They love competition, academic rigor, open-ended questions, and the flexibility and creativity of solving a real-world challenge.

The scholarship prize money — $35,000 was awarded in the 1st 3 years — is important too, of course.

But they’d probably be there even without that lure. In fact, one student thought next year’s challenge could be even tougher.

He wants to add “a twist” to the problem at some point during the day.

This all-sophomore quartet included (from left) Nick Kveitaia, Killian Jampierre, Andrea Mahieu and Mehar.

This all-sophomore quartet included (from left) Nick Kveitaia, Killian Jampierre, Andrea Mahieu and Mehar Kirmani.

A Spectacular Student Challenge

Tuesday’s “06880” addressed the stultifying consequences of standardized testing — and a proposed state bill that would lead to even more of it.

Today’s post shows exactly what happens when students are set free — and encouraged to learn for learning’s sake. (Plus $14,500 in prize money.)

The event was the 3rd annual Staples Spectacular Student Challenge. For 12 solid hours — from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. — 10 teams of 5 students each sacrificed sleep, engaged their brains, pooled their wits, and created a blueprint for education in the 21st century.

If anyone should know about learning, it’s students. But to get them so excited about it that they’ll spend an entire Saturday thinking, arguing, researching, planning and writing about it — well, that’s learning at its best.

Every Staples Spectacular Student Challenge team had its own style. Above, from left: Michelle Mastrianni, Eric Lombardo, Daniel Ciotoli, Michaela MacDonald, Judy Feng.

Early Saturday morning, the 50 sophomores, juniors and seniors received some background material. It read, in part:

Education has long been the avenue to train and equip individuals and societies for the shifting jobs and skills that are necessary to evolve our world.  At the moment, however, education is at a crossroads.  The old system of school presents a model of a 5-day-a-week, rotating schedule of subject specific classes that assess your individual content and skills with traditional testing.  Many wonder if this is the best model for training our students for the future.

Westport has recently initiated the “Westport 2025” program to address the future of education in our town.  The goal of Westport 2025 is to prepare students with the skills they need to operate in the global 21st century.  The initiative is currently looking at what teachers teach and how they teach it.  However, the Task Force for Westport 2025 wants to hear from you.  If Westport is to meet the 2025 vision and create the global student, what do we need to do to and within the school to create the optimal environment for 21st century learning?

2012 students, designing education for the rest of the century. Above, from left: Tiffany Yang , Megumi Asada, Mark Schwabacher, Neloise Egipto.

Each group had to:

  1. Define the skills of a “global 21st century student” (including content and a means for assessing mastery of those skills)
  2. Redesign Staples to provide a vehicle for learning those skills (including daily and yearly calendars, academic organization and building infrastructure), class size, use of technology, and assessment
  3. Design a plan to bring items 1 and 2 to life — and sell it to the community. Items to consider: feasibility (cost, faculty, qualifications); impact of the plan on local, state and federal funding; how to win over the Staples community, town government and education leaders; whether the plan could be adopted by other school districts.

Most groups agreed on the need for critical thinking, not memorization. They understood the need for students to be creative, apply knowledge in meaningful ways, and think independently and differently.

All were skillful in the use of multi-media to hone their arguments, and make their cases.

Is an all-male team up to the challenge? Above, from left: Mike Holtz, Jacob Meisel, Cole DeMonico, Andrew Bowles, Jordan Shenhar.

Beyond that, each group had its own approach. Some hailed technology; others worried it would overpower social skills. Some thought concretely, others abstractly. Some relied more on numbers, others on words.

All worked furiously, for the entire 12 hours.

It was education at its core.  And it spoke directly to Staples’ school goal:  understand a local theme with much larger real-world implications, and work collaboratively using math, science, social studies and English skills to craft a solution.

There was not a bubble sheet in sight.

(The $14,500 prize money was donated by Melissa & Doug and the Gudis Family Foundation. Next step: The 10 papers will be reviewed by a group of Staples staff members, representing all academic areas. Five will be selected; group members will then make a public presentation in late April, from which the top 3 will be chosen. Prize money is donated directly to each winning student’s college.)

Taking a quick break from solving a crucial educational problem. Above, from left: Baxter Stein, Katie Zhou, Melissa Beretta, Max Liben.

Staples Students Challenge Obesity

Which is more incongruous:  58 teenagers volunteering to spend 12 hours working at school (on a Sunday!), or chowing down junk food while trying to solve the problem of obesity?

Both happened earlier this month. The event was Staples’ 2nd annual Spectacular Student Challenge. For $12,5000 in prize money, 12 teams of students sacrificed sleep, engaged their brains, pooled their wits and downed enormous quantities of chips, soda and other obesity-inducing delights.

Early Sunday morning — alertly remembering the start of daylight savings time — 12 teams assembled in separate classrooms.  Each team received this year’s topic:  America’s alarming increase in overweight children and adults has wreaked havoc on health, health costs and the economy.

The “Challenge”:  design a persuasive campaign, a “pitch” and a researched report to convince the Westport community to follow a plan encouraging lifestyle change and healthy living.

The report had to answer questions like:

What factors contribute to a rise in obesity levels in the U.S., as compared to other industrialized countries?

How has obesity impacted society so far?  How will it do so in the future?  How is that effect quantifiable?

What realistic steps can schools, the Westport community, town and state governments, and private groups take to solve the problem?

What obstacles will your plan encounter, and how will you address them?

How will you measure your plans’ effectiveness over time?

Campaigns would be judged on creativity and well-analyzed data.  The information had to be well organized, and bibliographically cited.  Visual and multi-media aids were strongly encouraged.

Taking a rare break from their work (from left): sophomores Marcus Russi, Judy Feng, Robert DeLuca, Martha Whammond and Amanda Wildstein.

Stopping only for food, the students went to work.  They researched numbers, and dug into history.  They analyzed data, synthesized ideas and modeled solutions.  They thought outside the box, tossed aside the boxes that didn’t work, and dove into snack boxes.

They created pitches, argued over the best way to present them, came to consensus, then had to actually design them — in a variety of media.

It was education at its core.  And it spoke directly to Staples’ school goal:  understand a local theme with much larger real-world implications, and work collaboratively using math, science, social studies and English skills to craft a solution.

Senior Cole Manley’s group, for example, came up with a plan that included making bike lanes in Westport more expansive and convenient; eliminating all trans fats in Westport restaurants; making student lunches healthier through more diverse offerings (and more fruits and vegetables), and revising the phys. ed. curriculum to get more students exercising.

This group included (from left) Jeremy Rubel, Michelle Mastriani, Petey Menz, Michael Menz and Cole Manley.

Finally — 12 hours, and many Cheez Doodles and pizzas later — the 12 teams were done.

Cole’s team sent their paper off with 5 minutes to spare.  Interspersed with calculus graphs of obesity percentages were Norman Rockwell drawings of youngsters exercising.

Now, a team of teachers is reviewing all 12 papers.  The top 6 teams will make a presentation to a panel of judges on April 26.

Members of the winning team get $6,000, to be used as scholarship funds for college.  The next 2 teams will share another $6,500.  Prize money was donated by the Gudis Family Foundation, and the Melissa & Doug educational toy company.

Then the winners will go out to celebrate.  With a dinner at Whole Foods.

Grading Graffiti

The days of true-false final exams are numbered.

Taking inspiration from last winter’s Spectacular Student Challenge — in which teams of Staples students worked for 12 hours to find ways to make Westport a more environmentally friendly town — English instructor Julia McNamee devised an innovative 2-hour final for her AP English class:  research, then solve, Staples’ graffiti problem.

Oh, and include a visual presentation too.

Last winter’s prize was $5,000.

This time around, students worked “only” for a grade.  But their results were impressive.

As part of their solution, Michael Findley, Farrel Levenson and Julie Lunde proposed letting students express themselves on a mural. They quickly created this specific example.

One group discovered that the University of Virginia drastically cut binge drinking by educating the campus on the subject.

Staples’ solution:  a community-wide effort, beginning the 1st week of school, involving television, newspapers and other media.

Another group learned that Mississippi State University offered money — donated by a local citizen — that increased each day the bathrooms remained clean.  The Stapleites’ solution built on that concept.

One more solution:  Showing a video in which custodians speak about their experiences removing graffiti from walls.

Yet another group explained why students “perpetually vilify” their own bathrooms:  “It’s the ultimate ‘screw you’ — rebellious yet anonymous.  It’s a ‘too-cool-for-school attitude that gives students power.”

Declaring alliteratively that “drawings of ducks and dicks” must stop, that group said:  “Take away the rebellious factor, and you take away the thrill.  If a roller-coaster didn’t defy laws of gravity, it wouldn’t be as appealing to teens.”

Will graffiti be eliminated at Staples because of Julia McNamee’s final exam efforts?

Probably not.

But it is one more indication that an emphasis on critical thinking and real-world problem-solving is firmly entrenched here.

Now, if only the SAT, ACT, AP, GRE, LSAT and MCAT followed suit…

And The Winner Is…

…Team 102.

Nick Cion, Annie Harnick, Lexa Koenig, Kat Krieger and Lena Ziskin — all seniors at Staples — won that school’s inaugural Spectacular Student Challenge.

By figuring out which of 3 different strategies — actually, a combination of all 3 — would make Westport greener, they earned the praise of judges, plus the satisfaction of knowing their 12 hours of work could help create a more environmentally friendly town.

Oh yeah.  They also won $5,000.

Lexa Koenig and Lena Ziskin look snug -- but their laptops get a workout midway through the Challenge.

Despite having to plow through a PhD-level question — then research, analyze, synthesize and present their findings in a time frame that would stress a post-doc — the winners took a balanced approach to their task.

They enjoyed a sitdown lunch from Tengda, and also spent a few minutes in the fieldhouse, cheering Staples’ indoor track team at their championship meet.  “We didn’t fry our brains,” Nick says, counterintuitively.

But they must have done something right.

“We saw the importance of innovation, but we also knew we needed a plan that was catchy, accessible, and would appeal to the public at large,” he adds, explaining his group’s success.

They concluded that a 3-pronged strategy is needed.  Solar panels at Staples and Bedford, and carbon reduction would help a bit; so would community-supported agriculture.  But household changes are necessary too.

The group seized on a Brazilian initiative — peeing in the shower to reduce flushes — and estimated that if every Westporter did that once a day, we’d save 11 million gallons of water a year.  That got the judges’ notice (as well as anyone who pees).

After earning finalist status, the team practiced their presentation for a full day.  Other groups were math oriented, but Team 102 focused on communication skills.

“We wanted a presentation that we would want to hear,” Nick says.  “We didn’t talk about numbers; we talked about why all this was important.”

Lunch from Tengda was great -- but a few hours later Team 102 wanted to make sure they had dinner too.

Going into the final presentation, the group had no idea what to expect.  They were eager to see how other teams — some of them veterans of the similar, but math-heavy, Moody’s Mega-Challenge — did.  When the night was over, they felt they’d done well — and were glad their tack was different.

Last Friday, Nick was awakened at 10:20 a.m. — hey, it was a snow day — with word from Kat that their group had won.  He was thrilled, then promptly fell back asleep.

On Monday, Team 102 will accept congratulations — and a fake check — at the Board of Education meeting.

As for the carryover effect of the contest, Nick says:  “I’m already following the household tips we came up with.  It’s amazing how easy it is.”  (Yes, all of them.)

And — for Team 102 — how lucrative.

Staples Spectacular Challenge Question – Read It Here!

You’ve heard all about the Staples Spectacular Student Challenge — the event that kept over 40 high schoolers riveted for 12 hours Saturday, as they researched, analyzed, synthesized, wrote and calculated their way toward a $10,000 prize.

Now you can read it, in all its 10-page glory.

Before “06880” provides the link, however, a warning:  Sit down.  Get comfortable.  Pour yourself a nice soothing coffee or tea (or whatever).

And imagine how you would have handled this question when you were in high school.

To see the type of thinking Staples encourages today, click here.

Petey Menz has no problem with the Staples Spectacular Student Challenge question. (Photo by Julia McNamee)

Challenging Staples Students

It doesn’t take much to get Staples students to spend 13 hours on a Saturday at school.

Just the chance to research, model, analyze, synthesize and develop presentation materials to solve a real-world problem.

And win $10,000 in scholarships.

Albert Einstein is not on any of the Staples Spectacular Student Challenge teams (he's too old, and too dead). But Staples' spectacular students will do fine without him.

The 1st-ever Staples Spectacular Student Challenge is set for this Saturday (January 30).  Stapleites have formed themselves into teams of 4 or 5; if they’re smart (and they are) their team will be skillful in areas ranging from English and social studies to math and scinece.

At 8 a.m., the teams will receive a Challenge problem.  For the next 13 hours they’ll work together to research the problem, figure out a solution, and present it persuasively.

Preliminary judging will be done by Staples faculty.  The top teams will 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.)

So what might this open-ended, thought-provoking, real-world problem be?

Three samples were provided by math instructor Trudy Denton.

One dealt with health policy:

Evaluate the expected infection rate of H1N1 Influenza virus in the Westport community.  Define an optimal health policy for the community that incorporates vaccination guidelines, quarantine recommendations and school closure policies.

Include analysis of the implications of broad based infection in among various school community groups:  students, faculty and support staff.  How might your recommendations change if considering H1N1 infection in an inner-city school setting?

The 2nd involved energy usage:

Develop an optimal school calendar and daily schedule and identify the optimal use of Town of Westport facilities in order to reduce current energy usage by 10%.

Consider the financial implications of your proposed changes for the Westport School District; the psychological, social and emotional needs of students in your recommendations, as well as family, individual student and staff needs.  Identify the impact on transportation services, and consider the historic rationale for the traditional school calendar.

The 3rd covered personal finance:

Design an annual and monthly family budget for an average family in suburban Westport and an average family in inner city New Haven.  How do the following considerations impact each of these budgets?  Environmentally friendly purchases and family practices; transportation decisions; education planning; financial and health emergency planning; child care and extracurricular expenses; leisure activities.

Just another typical Saturday, for typical Staples students.