‘Schools That Can’ Unveils Winners of Virtual ‘Design Challenge’ for Middle School Students in Several U.S. Cities

Six middle school teams from across the Northeast, including Newark, present real-world, eco-friendly designs to change the future of public-school infrastructure 

NEWARK, N.J. – March 1, 2021 – Schools That Can (STC), a nonprofit organization that aims to close the opportunity and skills gap in urban areas, named the winners of its fifth annual “Design Challenge” on Thursday, Feb. 25. The virtual event allowed six schools representing Newark, N.J., Pittsburgh, Pa., and New York City to go head-to-head on innovative design concepts – creating efficient, sustainable layouts for existing public-school infrastructure. 

Each team presented its findings to a six-member panel of expert judges and vied for titles in the following categories: “Best Overall,” “Best Design” and “Best Presentation.” Designs had a particular focus on spaces that can be retrofitted to attain higher levels of sustainability (including recommendations for rooftops, terraces, landscape architecture, and more). Design Challenge winners included: Northgate Middle School of Pittsburgh, Pa., for “Best Overall,” Discovery Charter School of Newark, N.J., for “Best Design” and VOICE Charter School of New York City, for “Best Presentation.”

Northgate Middle School students received Amazon Fire HD tablets. Other winners took home exclusive Panasonic merchandise. 

Best Overall winners from Pittsburgh presented solutions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including updating the school’s heating system, replacing standard lights with energy-efficient LED lighting, and placing solar canopies in parking lots and rooftops. Other teams presented eco-friendly concepts on integrating greenspace and indoor gardens.

STC’s “Design Challenge” is a collaboration with the Panasonic Foundation Inc, a leader in supporting STEAM education for historically undeserved communities. The Feb. 25 event began with an introduction from Alexandra Ceja, Vice President, Social Impact and Inclusion and Executive Director of the Panasonic Foundation. 

She noted: “Panasonic is proud of all of the students who participated in the Schools That Can Virtual Design Challenge. Using their creative minds and skills gained from their coaches, students from across the country designed sustainable solutions which will have an impact on their communities.”

“We are thankful to STC and all the employee volunteers for their time mentoring the next generation of young leaders,” Ceja added.

Judges for the virtual event included:

  • Andrea Murphy, Group Manager, Environmental Systems, Panasonic
  • Joey Muller, Cloud Software Engineer, Smart Mobility, Cirrus by Panasonic
  • Lauren Cordova, Data Science and Analytics Manager, Panasonic
  • Mark Thaler, Senior Associate and Education Practice Leader at Gensler
  • Megan Lee, Vice President of Planning and Strategic Initiatives and Chief Human Resources Officer, Panasonic
  • Tom Ralston, Superintendent, Avonworth School District, Allegheny County, Pa.


STC Newark, which serves a network of roughly 40 district, charter and independent schools, hosts the Design Challenge annually, bringing together young students, teachers, corporate executives and community leaders. Participants engage in real-world design exercises to transform urban schools into more sustainable structures. Other STC cities began hosting Design Challenges in 2019. This was the first year that all STC cities came together for a national Design Challenge.

Corporate volunteers from Prudential, Panasonic, NJ Transit, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Newark Trust for Education, and others from across the U.S. served as consultants to the middle schoolers.

STC’s Design Challenge program has proved impactful to date: More than half of the participating students indicated that they would like to pursue a career in design as a result of the challenge.

“Schools That Can’s programs, including the Design Challenge, have benefited Newark’s youth in tremendous ways, and motivate them to participate in stimulating activities that can provide a lasting impact,” said Erin Sweeney, Executive Director of STC Newark. 

“Our students realize their capabilities and become inspired to go on and make an impact in their future careers,” Sweeney added.

Other special initiatives of STC Newark include the Prudential Citywide Math Initiative, aimed at increasing math readiness skills for Newark’s youth; the Victoria Foundation Public School Grants Program, which has contributed $200,000 dollars annually towards Newark’s district and charter schools to use for college success and access; and the Spirit of Community Service Clubs, where STC serves as the lead coordinator and partners with Prudential to guide students through creating their own community service projects.

To learn more about STC’s virtual presentation and awards event, click here.

About Schools That Can (STC)

STC partners with schools to deliver engaging Education to Employment (e2e) Pathway® content that connects teachers and students to the world of work. Their 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. All programming builds direct connections between students, educators and volunteers from a variety of professional fields. For further information, visit www.schoolsthatcan.org/newark/.

About the Panasonic Foundation
With North American headquarters in Newark, NJ, Panasonic Foundation, Inc. is committed to creating positive change through technology. The Panasonic Foundation is devoted to creating a better life, a better world through employee volunteerism, corporate outreach initiatives, and by increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged students through strategic philanthropic investments. Panasonic Foundation’s local and national mission is an extension of its core principles. The foundation is dedicated to supporting efforts that advance educational excellence. Follow the Panasonic Foundation on Instagram @PanasonicFoundation and on Twitter @PanasonicFDN.

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