Building something special
Ida Jew Academy is boosting confidence and capability in students by embracing The Tech Challenge and Design Challenge Learning.
The 200 middle schoolers at Ida Jew Academy are gathered in the cafeteria, looking on breathlessly as a team of student engineers carefully place a structure on the table at the front of the room. Built entirely of toothpicks and marshmallows, their four-story building looks, oddly, both precarious and solid, featuring a wide, stable base but also a decided tendency to lean to the left.
The team of four girls slowly back away, willing it not to fall. It stands tall, but the real test is yet to come — the building needs to withstand the dreaded shake table, which will jolt and vibrate the Marshmallow Manor for 30 long seconds, exposing any structural weaknesses.
Elisha Burns, Ida Jew’s STEM Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA), is the judge for today’s Great Shakeout competition, so she steps forward to flip the switch on the shake table. It instantly comes to life, making the tower of toothpicks shake and shimmy. The building continues to jitter as the audience’s cheers grow louder until, finally, Burns turns the table off and the team of engineers high five each other.
Their building has survived.
Really, though, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Ida Jew students have a lot of experience building and engineering because many of them participate year after year in The Tech Challenge, the signature program of The Tech that invites teams of young people to use the engineering design process to solve a real-world problem.
Over the years, Ida Jew teams have won awards ranging from Best Costume to Best Overall, and their Tech Challenge coordinator, Brenda Serrano-Perez, says that Ida Jew makes it a point to recognize these victories. The school’s makerspace and cafeteria feature a wall of banners that Serrano-Perez calls the Hall of Fame.
“Just like you have banners of sports in the gym, we have these banners because this is just as important a pursuit as sports,” she says. “It’s about mindset. We also do a big awards banquet at the end of the school year where we all come together as a community to recognize their achievements. It matters.”
The impact on students
In addition to teaching kids how to build and measure, The Tech Challenge fosters critical 21st century skills like collaboration, communication and creativity, something former Ida Jew eighth grader Marano Ortega can attest to. For the 2015 Challenge on seismic engineering, his team was inspired by pizza.
“We were eating pizza and trying to brainstorm and one of my teammates suddenly grabbed two styrofoam plates, got a marker and just shoved it into the plates and that’s where we got our first idea,” he says. “It was kind of like that for the whole thing. We always got our inspiration from stuff we used every day.”
For fellow Ida Jew alum Sydney Esquivel, it’s the collaboration aspect of The Tech Challenge that she’s improved on the most. “Some people are more outgoing so they share their ideas more and other people like me are more quiet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have good ideas,” she says.
These “soft skills” matter a lot. A 2019 study from LinkedIn found that the top five skills most sought by employers are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management — all key aspects of The Tech Challenge.
Seeing the positive changes in students like Marano and Sydney makes Serrano-Perez more determined than ever to convince other schools to participate in The Tech Challenge. As a newly elected member of Mt. Pleasant Elementary School District’s Board, she hopes to expand Tech Challenge to all of the district’s schools.
“Design challenges are just not something you normally see at a public school. Since we began doing Tech Challenge, we’ve evened the playing field,” she explains. “There are now just as many public schools winning awards as private. To me, public school is worthy, it’s viable, and we just have to provide what the students need.”
Helping her with that goal is Burns, the Ida Jew TOSA who believes just as strongly as Serrano-Perez that Design Challenge Learning is critical for students to succeed in the future. While Serrano-Perez is looking to spread the program outward, Burns — who is also an Engineering Education Leader trained by The Tech Academies — has been instrumental in integrating it into Ida Jew’s curriculum.
That means bringing Tech-Challenge inspired events like The Great Shakeout to every single class, all the way down to the kinders. But it hasn’t been easy. Staff turnover and setting aside class time for design challenge activities are two of the most common obstacles.
Still, Burns remains committed to Design Challenge Learning, having seen the changes in her own son, who also attends Ida Jew: “He has that growth mindset, that yes mindset. He’s always saying ‘I’m an engineer,’ so he gets it,” she says.