Seventh-grade students in Angela Selvaggio’s Harwood Union Middle School science class were among 100 state recipients of a National STEM competition recently with an idea to address human impacts on nearby natural areas .
The Solve for Tomorrow competition, sponsored by the Samsung corporation, challenges students to solve a problem related to sustainability in their communities using STEM skills. Selvaggio’s class chose to focus on finding ways to cope with the impacts of increased use by locals and tourists of popular outdoor recreation areas.
“The winning idea is to design a trash can that secures waste from bears and other wildlife, incorporates recycling and possibly compost,” Selvaggio explained in an email about the project. Another aspect of the students’ plan includes the design and placement of signs at recreation locations to encourage better stewardship of land and water.
The class began discussing the contest in November. “The discussion was fiery and passionate!” remembers the teacher.
Eventually, the students began to focus on the changes that were within reach. “The group’s consensus settled on the topic of education and waste management in our beloved recreation areas,” Selvaggio explained.
Student Harmony Belle Devoe described the process: “We came up with our idea by brainstorming and just saying our ideas out loud and writing them down, and then we picked the one we thought was most important and the most feasible.”
Shortly after, they submitted their proposal which they heard in mid-December. Gobsmacked was a fair assessment of their reaction to the news. “Our reaction to finding out we won was really funny. Everyone was staring at the email not knowing how to respond,” student Cora Potts said. realized that we had won.”
Devoe recounted how the excitement kicked in as he read the email with the exciting news projected onto a whiteboard. “Some people kissed. Some people screamed in joy and shock, and some people just smiled and said, ‘yay!’ Devoe’s reaction? “I laughed and then I said ‘well, that’s cool!'”
The Selvaggio middle schoolers were Vermont’s only winning team. As state winners, they will receive $6,500 to redeem on DonorsChoose.org, a website that allows schools to request items such as technology and school supplies.
The next phase of the competition is the selection of the 10 finalist national schools. For this part of the competition, students will create a working prototype and use video equipment (also awarded as part of the state award) to create a video about their idea. The students received a mentor from Samsung and they will participate in webinars on digital storytelling, Selvaggio explained.
Video submissions are due in early March. Once finalists are chosen, voting will narrow down the nominees with final judging at an in-person event in New York City in April if COVID-19 circumstances permit.
If selected, Harwood students will present their project to the judges. Seven of the national finalist schools will receive supplies and technology worth $50,000, including $100,000 in supplies and technology for the top three winning schools. Online voting and votes from Samsung employees will determine the winners of two additional $10,000 national finalist prizes. The top three nationals also win a trip to Washington DC in May.
“Being selected as one of the winners of the 2021-22 States was awesome because it told us that our dreams and ambitions can come true if we try hard and work well together,” Devoe said. “If we won this competition, it would mean a lot to us and be a great opportunity for the school.”
While other perks and prizes are possible, winning at the state level has already provided much more than just equipment and supplies. “Given all the obstacles the school has faced over the past two years, it added courage and spark,” Selvaggio said.
She thanks her students for their hard work. “There are thoughtful, creative and engaged students at HUMS, and this competition gives them the opportunity to authentically challenge themselves and shine,” she said.
Through the process of the project, Selvaggio and her class have already made local connections that they hope can create change in their community. They recently caught up on Zoom with Eric Friedman, executive director of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce, and Ira Shadis, managing director of Friends of Mad River.
“It was an invigorating gathering as students and community partners listened to each other’s ideas, brainstormed and considered possible solutions to the impacts of increased use of recreational areas and environmental stewardship,” said Selvaggio. “This conversation really helped the students understand how their ideas can make a difference and effect change in our local community.”
So far, the experiment has enough momentum that Selvaggio said she suspects she could pull it off whether or not she gets more recognition from the competition. “We have all been inspired by the conversation and collaboration and want to continue to grow this project no matter what happens with our position in the Samsung Challenge contest,” she said.