Middle-school students from charter, district and independent schools throughout Newark joined forces to take part in the Schools That Can (STC) Design Day Challenge, where teams of students from all corners of the city got to experience teamwork and some real world, hands-on learning.

In its second year, the design challenge initiative was created by STC Newark—a network of district, charter, faith-based and independent schools that promotes high-quality urban education—with the goal of creating a hands-on learning experience while bridging education with the real world.

The national STC network unites leaders across K-12 sectors and promotes the education to employment continuum by closing the opportunity and skills gap.

Sign Up for E-News

STC Newark works with more than 20 schools throughout the city, serving more than 9,000 students participating as members of the STC network.

Seventh and eighth-graders from ten different Newark schools participated in the initiative on Friday, which challenged students to create a fully-designed mobile app for their client, the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (NCEDC).

The challenge was presented the morning of the event by Jorge Santos, Vice President of Economic Development Policy and Strategic Planning at NCEDC.

Participating schools included Brick Avon Academy, Brick Peshine Academy, Newark Boys Chorus School, Speedway Academy, Philip’s Academy, Discovery Charter School, Link Community Charter School, and both campuses of Great Oaks Charter School.

Each team—made up of a mix of students from different schools—was named for one sponsor of the event, including Edison Properties, RBH Group, Hollister Construction, Newark Mentoring Movement (NMM), Microsoft, Newark Regional Business Partnership (NRBP), NJIT’s American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), and Newark Thrives.

Event sponsors included Wells Fargo and Audible, among others.

School administrators, teachers, parents, company representatives, volunteers and community members participated in the full-day event, which included a gallery walk where guests could view each team's designs, along with an awards ceremony at the end of the day.

Four awards were handed out in Best Overall, Best Design, Best Presentation and People’s Choice categories.

Donned in brightly-colored t-shirts representing their specific teams, students—guided by skilled facilitators—were charged with designing an application to be used in kiosks throughout the city. Apps had to include a user-friendly interface, have interactive and educational elements, target children and young adults and meet the specific needs of residents.

Students also had to prepare a four-minute presentation in order to "sell" their apps to the client and judges.

STC Executive Director Erin Sweeney said the organization was started almost 15 years ago with the mission of connecting different schools to create cross-sector collaboration, with this year's focus being on real-world learning.

“Education has become more prescriptive,” Sweeney said, noting the test-driven curricula of today. “Often, that hands-on learning is lost. Employers have been saying that students don’t have real life skills.”

Sweeney, together with STC’s advisory board, came up with the idea of the challenge, with last year’s challenge creating an expansion project for Riverfront Park.

“Our goal for this event is that kinds are practicing teamwork and they learn real-life skills,” she said. “This year our challenge was how to get information to and from people throughout the city.”

In addition, said Sweeney, teachers learn about exposing their students to real world learning, with educators scheduled to meet with SCT next month to participate in strategy sessions with the objective of implementing these lessons into their own classrooms.

STC Newark Advisory Board member Linda Morgan, who is also the Vice President of RBH Group, a real estate development group responsible for projects such as Teachers Village, said the Design Day Challenge is a chance for students to experience a real-world situation.

“This gives kids a chance to step out of their environments and to expose them to careers,” Morgan said.

Morgan said team facilitators helped inspire students to create their innovative designs.

“In about three hours, these kids were able to conceive of an idea and design a kiosk for the public,” she said. “To do something like this where you know your design might actually be built is incredible.”

Morgan also noted the fact that kids from different schools were paired up and working together seamlessly within minutes.

“To step outside of their comfort zone and work with new kids—all of this is really great training in how you’d deal directly with life and careers,” she said.

Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason lauded the initiative.

“NCSF applauds the work of Schools That Can in connecting all kinds of great schools to collaborate and improve urban education,” Mason said. “The Design Day Challenge is just another example of bringing schools together to support and celebrate our dynamic, amazing youth.”

Academic Director of Newark Boys Chorus School Ulysses Morris said the school has participated in the initiative since its inception.

"We believe we need to be intentional about innovation in education in order to create a better future of learning for everyone," Morris said. "The Design Day experience takes that out of theory and puts it into practice. Initiatives like STC Design Day Challenge inspire middle school students to make, build, play, think, experiment, ask questions, and follow their own curiosities. Challenges like this help to unlock the creative genius in all children."

Using the experience as reference, said Morris, students become more confident in thinking "outside the box" and putting more thought and creativity into schoolwork, projects,  and assignments.

"This challenge was also unique in that it allowed students to take ownership in designing solutions for a real challenge facing 'Brick City," Morris said. "STC Design Day Challenge fosters and encourages creativity and entrepreneurship in children throughout the city of Newark to raise a new generation of innovators and problem solvers who have the tools they need to build the world they imagine."

Morris noted that NCBS students enjoyed the cross-sector collaboration with local sponsors and other schools. 

"Being that they attend an all-boys school, any opportunities to work alongside young ladies, they will take it," he said. "Newark Boys Chorus School is smaller in student number and class size than most other schools, so collaborating on a larger scale provided them with the experience of working with new people in a new environment, thus preparing them for high-school and eventually career."

Troy Hamilton, a student at Great Oaks Charter School and a member of "Team NRBP," said that his team’s app, “Newark Now,” was created with kids in mind.

“We cannot leave the kids out,” he said. “We involve the kids by having games. We can’t just stick to adults. We want this to help Newark, and we want people to know that Newark is a beautiful place.”

David Odunuga, a student at Brick Peshine Academy, said that a user-friendly interface and calendar would help residents and visitors to Newark.

“It helps you see Newark from another perspective,” he said.

Yasmeena Sharif, a seventh-grader at Philip’s Academy, said that her team, "Team Edison Properties," wanted to connect communities with their app entitled “Newark Sphere.”

“We wanted to connect the wards,” she said.

Amanda Johnson, director of entrepreneurial collective Future Fownders, led the facilitators at this year’s event and created a guide to help inform students through the idea and design process.

“It was an awesome day and it was special watching the greatness in our youth emerge,” Johnson said. “Design Day provides students the opportunity to get a crash course on ideation to presentation. In a single day, seventh and eighth graders are given a real-world problem and the encouragement to develop and present a solution. This is a hands-on experience that empowers these young people beyond the day and the skills developed are resources for a lifetime.”

Johnson said it was important for Future Fownders to take part in the initiative. 

“Everything about this great event directly relates to our mission of cultivating our youth and highlighting their tangible skills through the promotion of entrepreneurial principles,” she said. “We encourage every young person to create, own and build their ideas.”

Morgan noted the standout qualities of Newark students.

“Newark students come at this with a very open mind, no preconceived notions and no sense of entitlement,” she said. “It meant a lot to me personally to see the quality, maturity, commitment and excitement of the Newark kids.”