A science expo for do-gooders: Philly students tackle Aspen Challenge

 The Northeast High School team makes its presentation. (Avi Wolman-Arent/WHYY)

The Northeast High School team makes its presentation. (Avi Wolman-Arent/WHYY)

The students at John Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia had a simple goal: They wanted their neighborhood to look nicer.

They were tired of the trash, tired of the waste, and tired of feeling neglected.

“One of the things that kept coming up in conversation is we’ll visit places all over and those places look beautiful,” said Tia Hall, a climate manager at Bartram. “But when we come home we can’t feel proud of where we live.”

From that basic-but-powerful idea came Seeds of Change, a student-led organization dedicated to changing the way Southwest Philadelphians think about litter. The Bartram students made an elaborate chandelier out of discarded water bottles. They created a web cartoon and a video game designed to get younger kids hooked on cleaning up. They even made nifty hand bags out of refuse.

And they did all this as part of the Aspen Challenge, a sort of swanky science expo for do-gooders that came to Philadelphia for this time this year. Linked to the Aspen Institute — a high-powered, celebrity-tinged nonprofit — the Aspen Challenge pushes high school students to think about what they can do to make their world a better place.

The challenge tells teams of high school students to pick one of five problems to solve. They then get seven weeks to come up with some novel solution.

Twenty high schools from across the city participated, culminating in a Wednesday presentation.

Teams from Northeast High School, George Washington High School and Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School took top honors and will present their solutions later this year in Aspen, Colorado.

On Wednesday students also heard from a raft of big names: movie director M. Night Shyamalan, Mayor Jim Kenney, Superintendent William Hite, and star academic Angela Duckworth. They presented their projects, TED-talk style, in a swanky downtown ballroom. And they binged on a complementary ice cream bar.

But the focus was on the ideas — some quaint, others wildly ambitious.

There was talk of making nutritional smoothies out of fruits and vegetables that would have been thrown away. A team from String Theory Charter School developed an app concept that would encourage exercise in schools that don’t have much recreation space.

The squad from Gateway to College — an alternative school for students who had previously left high school — mused about creating a “forgiveness” challenge that would mirror other viral sensations such as the Ice Bucket Challenge.

“In 45 seconds or less you’re supposed to state an offense, state how that offense made you feel and then state why you forgive that person,” said senior Jachai May.

Now imagine an internet flooded with people forgiving each other. Would it cure violence? Would it “change the psychology of the entire nation” as May put it? Probably not. But it could be a start.

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