‘Schools That Can’ Launches 5th Annual Design Challenge for Middle School Students

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Students from Newark, N.J., Pittsburgh, Pa., Chicago and New York City compete to transform urban public school buildings into smart, green structures; winners to be announced in February 2021

Newark, N.J. – Nov. 18, 2020 – In a first-of-its-kind virtual initiative, Schools That Can (STC), a nonprofit organization that aims to close the opportunity and skills gap in urban areas, has launched its fifth annual “Design Challenge.” The program brings together middle schoolers, their teachers, corporate executives and community leaders from four cities to engage in a real-world design experience: transforming urban public school buildings into smart, green and efficient structures. 

In collaboration with the Panasonic Foundation, the program allows students to research the current functionalities of their school buildings and create a concept and design plan for a smart, green school using renewable energy. The designs will be built using real-life applications and software, including Tinkercad, a tool for 3D designs, electronics and coding. 

Promising seventh, eighth and ninth graders from charter, district and independent schools in four cities, including 24 students from Newark, N.J., have created virtual teams with their teachers. Corporate volunteers from Northern Trust, Prudential, Panasonic, NJ Transit, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Newark Trust for Education and others from across the U.S. are serving as consultants to the middle schoolers. Involved teachers learn new techniques to guide students and integrate into classrooms.

“This unique challenge allows students to take ownership in designing innovative solutions for pressing issues facing their communities,” said Alejandra Ceja, Executive Director, Panasonic Foundation and the Office of Social Impact. “Panasonic is home to many diverse tech leaders, and we believe the challenge will prepare students to become more solution-oriented thinkers and leaders as well as putting more thought and creativity into schoolwork, projects and assignments.”

Now in its fifth year, the design challenge was created by STC Newark – a network of district, charter, faith-based and independent schools that promotes high-quality urban education. STC’s mission entails creating a hands-on learning experience while bridging education with the real world. STC Newark works each year with teachers, administrators, and students from up to 40 K-12 schools throughout the city; these schools collectively serve tens of thousands of students.

“Real-world success starts with real-world experience. By participating in the Design Challenge, students can expand their learning outside of the classroom, discovering mentors and topics that may help shape their future,” said Erin Sweeney, Executive Director of STC Newark. “To prepare students for success, we must work collaboratively across industry sectors to provide high-quality educational experiences.” 

The national STC network unites leaders across K-12 sectors and helps close the opportunity and skills gap for students from historically marginalized communities through programs that provide hands-on experience, such as the Design Challenge. These programs enable students to solve urban design issues, tackle green building challenges and even help Fortune 500 companies reimagine products. Since the organization was founded in 2005, STC has directly impacted thousands of students, 200 schools, and 426 teachers and leaders.  

“People of color continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce, and 85% of the jobs that will exist by 2030 haven’t been invented yet. At the same time, we hear from employers that they need talent to fill important roles in their companies,” said Sweeney. “STC’s programs, therefore, are designed to help students build critical thinking skills to prepare for future STEM careers while helping companies hire locally. Our vision is to build our local communities and economies, solving multiple issues simultaneously.”  

In years past, students’ ideas have been incorporated into real-life projects, including Newark’s Washington Park design and the Mulberry Commons expansion project.

For more information on the STC Design Challenge, visit: www.schoolsthatcan.org/design-days/.  


In 2005, Schools That Can (STC) started with 12 schools from different sectors (charter, district, independent) and has since grown into the country’s largest cross-sector network of urban schools serving low-income communities. The network currently reaches more than 180 schools across 15 cities, serving more than 70,000 students. STC partners with schools to deliver engaging Education to Employment (e2e) Pathway® content that connects teachers and students to the world of work. Schools That Can’s mission is to build an education to employment pathway that closes the opportunity and skills gap. The programs strengthen and expand the capacity of schools and teachers to prepare historically marginalized students for careers or college and support their students on the e2e pathway. www.schoolsthatcan.org/.

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