Design Challenge is a class that was introduced to Dayton Jr. High and High School last year. Since it started, it has combined the Innovate culture with the power of student initiative. These two elements are important at Dayton School District, both inside and outside of the Design Challenge class.

Mrs. Shilhanek teaches Design Challenge at Dayton. Her 3rd period is the most bustling class of them all, with over 30 sixth graders — the youngest group that has ever had a Design Challenge class. Teaching such an animated class, she has seen a few groups shine to such a degree, that they are inspiring people beyond the classroom — and in big ways.

One team of girls created their own non-profit fundraising project to help support elephant conservation, calling their group The Elephant Saviors. There are currently four students on this team: Frankie Bettiga, Kya Lindell, Marina Cloud, and Melissa Arroyo. For a long time, they have known that elephants are in danger of being killed off by poachers. So they created one small team to help dismantle one big problem: the ivory market.

Every member of the group is fully engaged and each girl has maintained a role that they are the best at. For instance, Kya is their “scrum leader” and keeps the team goals organized and moving. Marina particularly likes to call businesses for donations and custom merchandise quotes. Frankie and Melissa are both writers and make their team’s speeches and letters. The team has even created their own website, as well as an Instagram page. Both inside and out of class, the girls have proven their dedication to elephant conservation advocacy. Kya said: “we like to come in during lunch and even before class starts.” “We work on it outside of school too.” Quickly added Frankie. They have found that the most valuable homework is the kind you make for yourself.

To be so young yet so invested in a project of this magnitude, these students are helping to shape their own education.  Not only are they enjoying their project, but they’re teaching themselves skills that typically aren’t developed until high school. Many people can’t imagine that eleven and twelve-year-old students are capable of creating such elaborate projects, at the level of drive that these students so clearly exhibit. But with the encouragement they’re receiving, they are able to freely explore their curiosity, commitment, and courage – the three values that underpin agile learning.

The first meeting with Benji Hedgecock. They provided some of his favorite snacks!

These girls are leading a project so impressive and inspiring, that they even got a local sponsor, Benji Hedgecock, to help them purchase and supply custom merchandise as well as set up their own bank account. Since their first business meeting with Mr. Hedgecock, they’ve started selling sweatshirts and t-shirts with the slogan “Save The Ivory” printed on the back. With this combined support from Mr. Hedgecock as well as Mrs. Shilhanek, they’re able to work efficiently to reach all of their weekly goals as a team.

Dayton believes that all students are capable of creating inspiring projects when given the permission to do so. Melissa says: “We don’t want to be treated like little kids. In here, we’re not treated that way. We’re leading this.” The girls feel that the focus of Design Challenge is truly open-ended and opportunistic, especially with regards to Mrs. Shilhanek’s style of teaching. Even considering the complexity of their project, they have found that dedicating themselves is easy given their complete freedom to do so. Mrs. Shilhanek is like a mentor for her students in the sense that she does not dictate the class, but provides support and advice while encouraging passion.

It’s not just Design Challenge that has adopted this agile mindset. Students are given the freedom to visit teachers around their school to promote their projects and seek guidance. This teacher-to-student support is part of the culture that has spread throughout all of Dayton School District.

Right now, the Elephant Saviors are continuing with their elephant conservation advocacy. They plan to continue fundraising after the class ends because they truly want to make a difference.

To support their cause, visit

Their Instagram account is @save_the_ivory

Bevin Schrag Administrator

Bevin Schrag is a writer for Innovate Oregon. While working in social media and marketing at OnlineNW, she is currently studying the arts at Chemeketa Community College, to later become a media designer.