K-12 Education

The 2014 Aspen Challenge Launches in Denver

January 10, 2014  • Dr. John E. Deasy, Guest Blogger

The Aspen Challenge — launched by the Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation — provides a platform, inspiration and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the world’s most critical problems by engaging with leading global visionaries, artists and entrepreneurs. The Denver Public Schools will send 20 teams from 20 schools to compete between January 10 and March 1, 2014. Below are reflections from Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Dr. John E. Deasy, whose school district participated in the 2013 Challenge, and will again in February of this year.

The video above shows highlights from the inaugural Challenge in Los Angeles last year.

Innovation belongs to the young. Sure, adults can be innovative, but we must fight the temptation to doubt, to question our ideas, and to believe that we could not possibly have a solution to a gnawing problem. Young people, however, are natural innovators. 

Today’s high school students have only lived in the Information Age. Full members of our knowledge-based society, they only know smartphones and a world of choice, from TV channels to how to read this very post. They have not yet experienced the thrill of getting their first great job, or felt the pressures of professional patience: waiting until it’s their turn.

We were fortunate to be the very first school district to host the Aspen Challenge last year. Over the course of seven weeks, 160 high school students from throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District created innovative solutions to real societal problems posed by some of the world’s greatest thinkers.

Co-created and sponsored by the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC, and the Bezos Family Foundation, which supports rigorous, inspired learning environments for young people, the Aspen Challenge brought the world into our classrooms. And, our LAUSD students met the challenges.

I remember the sheer excitement in the room when students realized that adults at the top of their fields were asking them for solutions. It was quite a powerful and friendly introduction to the professional world. It was an invitation to take their turn at using art to improve communication between factions, creating awareness and enthusiasm for science and technology, and saving the world’s oceans, just to name a few challenges. 

Students learned to collaborate with peers, discover local ways to address global issues, engage with their communities, test market their solutions using technology, learn from feedback and make revisions, and create multimedia presentations to share their innovative solutions and results. This is what today’s students need to know and do to succeed. It takes grit, as they say.

Our students have already learned how to persevere in their everyday lives. They have taken their circumstances — whether of poverty, immigration status or ZIP code — and kept walking forward. They have the grit; they just need to know how to apply it to other situations that will bring them success.

The 20 teams created phenomenal solutions, including designing an aquaponics system to grow sustainable food, creating an interactive curriculum for elementary students to learn the life cycle of plants using gardens, nurturing communication and understanding by hosting intergenerational dance events, and organizing beach cleanups in downtown Los Angeles to pick up trash that would have ended up in the ocean. 

Only the three highest-scoring teams attended the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, but every student, teacher, coach, and principal shared in the prize. For LAUSD, the prize is two-fold: preparing our graduates to be college- and career-ready, and sharing with students a world outside of their own so that they know to want more for their future selves.

Wanting more may seem elementary, but when you live in a food desert, or you walk through three gang territories to get to and from school, it is too often a luxury. We are creatures of habit, and the idea of doing as our families did is normal. We do what we know. What if we don’t know what we can do? 

That is the beauty of the Aspen Challenge. It is a marriage of ideas and self-efficacy. It teaches students who didn’t know they could be part of the solution to excel at being thinkers, creators, and producers of content. It empowers students to see avenues and highways of possibilities. And, thankfully, we are hosting this great opportunity again this year, as is the Denver Public Schools system, starting today.  

For all the awe of meeting a celebrity, or being inspired by a great thinker via the Aspen Challenge, the innovation takes place in students’ own lives. They will never see their world as they once did. They now know what is open to them, who they might be, where they might go. They are the innovators, present and future.