Young students possess capabilities that far surpass the standard expectation. Not only do they have brilliant minds with diverse interests, but they have a developed capacity for compassion. Design Challenge class sees this every day.

At the beginning of the school year, Jennifer Shilhanek, Dayton’s Design Challenge teacher, prepared to teach her first third period of the year – a class consisting of 32 sixth graders. Needless to say, she wasn’t sure exactly what she was preparing for. The school had never offered Design Challenge for sixth graders and she didn’t know what they would be capable of or how she would manage so many of them. Three months into the school year, Mrs. Shilhanek has seen these students take on projects at levels she never would’ve expected.

Back in September, Mrs. Shilhanek showed her sixth graders a PowerPoint containing several project ideas to help them get started on a personal interest project of their choice. Of these ideas was for a non-profit organization that is raising funds to build wells for third world countries without access to clean water. It is called Water1st International. Two different Design Challenge teams were intrigued by their vision.

The H2O Project

One of the groups is made up of three girls: Valynn Guthrie, Itzel Cortez-Avalos, and Emily Williams. Inspired by the founders of Water1st, they started to work on a fundraising project to support that organization. It’s called The H2O Project. They are particularly focused on helping women and girls in Africa, who are getting poor educations due to the amount of time they have to spend retrieving water for their villages. This water is often is dirty and ridden with dangerous bacteria as well.

These girls have become truly passionate about this cause. Itzel says “The more pictures we saw, [of the dirty water conditions] the more inspired we became. It’s real.” She says: “These people don’t even know how dirty their water is, they’ve never seen a faucet!”

The Design Challenge curriculum — or lack thereof — is very different to what the girls are used to. But it has made them see group work and projects from a whole new perspective. Valynn says “If we didn’t have this class, we wouldn’t have ever known about Water1st.” Itzel says: “There is a world outside of our own.”

Bring Water to Hope

The other Design Challenge group fundraising for Water1st is a group of three boys. They are learning how a team can leverage their individual skills to become stronger together. Their names are Roman Dodson, Issai Ceja, and Victor Alvarez-Campos. They are also fundraising for Water1st, but are fundraising through the internet. More specifically, they are using a website they discovered called Bonfire, to sell custom designed merchandise.

Everyone in the group has taken on different roles. These roles include organizing their span of goals from week to week in the form of “sprints”, designing merchandise, and even building their website. Victor was especially excited to be able to design a website because he’d been interested in exploring website design for a long time.

The group has found that in a team project, there is a job for everyone. Regarding the open-ended nature of Design Challenge, Victor says: “A lot is new in this class.” He explains that it is not just the project opportunities that are different, but the collective focus of Design Challenge — the bigger picture. He says: “In here, [Design Challenge] we are thinking of other people.” That involvement is a crucial aspect of Design Challenge’s continuous success with Dayton students.

Mrs. Shilhanek says: “The students want to leave an impact on the world. They don’t know what they don’t know but are willing to learn. They’re so passionate.” When describing the nature of this year’s Design Challenge classes, she said: “We’re letting the floodgates open.”

Design Challenge students are pouring their creative energy and passion into projects that inspire them. In doing so, they are broadening their interests and discovering their skills. As these students continue to prosper, Design Challenge continues to surround its focus on one core idea: “Why not?”

The boys’ “Bring Water to Hope” website:

Please buy merchandise to support their cause!

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.