They were asked to come up with solutions to take on some of society's most vexing problems: intergenerational poverty, climate change, cyberbullying, public health, and the "school-to-prison pipeline."
For their efforts, teenagers from John Bartram High School won a trip to Aspen, Colo., in June to present to an international audience their strategies on using art to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. They taught origami to students, worked to educate police officers, and proposed establishing a scholarship for formerly incarcerated youth.
They were among teams of five to eight students from 16 Philadelphia high schools competing Wednesday in the sixth annual Aspen Challenge, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit education think tank, and the Bezos Family Foundation, founded by Mike and Jackie Bezos, parents of Amazon head Jeff Bezos.
Each year teams from two major cities – in 2018, Philadelphia and Dallas, whose students competed last month – are challenged to come up with ways to fix problems affecting their communities.
"When you see kids engaged in these types of opportunities, it's just a reminder how impressive our kids are," said Shawn Bird, chief schools officer for the Philadelphia School District.
The Aspen Challenge also aids teachers, Bird said, showing them ways they can incorporate real-world problem-solving into their classrooms, and it helps the schools meet government requirements to prepare pupils for careers.
Students were given eight weeks and $500 to develop their ideas, which the Philadelphia students presented at Drexel University. Judges evaluated their proposals on originality, creativity, feasibility, sustainability, presentation, teamwork, and the potential for the idea to resonate with the community.
To combat climate change, George Washington High School students worked on a campaign to encourage people to choose tap water over bottled water and planned to expand it throughout the city. They won second place.
"It just became a duty to us," said Sereina Ferguson, 17, a George Washington junior on the team "PhilaMundo." "It became part of our lives."
Lankenau High School students replaced fluorescent lightbulbs in their school with LED lights that use less energy and removed nearly 300 unnecessary fluorescent bulbs. They reduced the school's energy consumption by 35 percent.
"You took something that was relatively simple that made such a great impact in your school" and has the opportunity to do the same in other schools, said Donna Frisby-Greenwood, a judge and head of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.
To fight poverty, teams from Frankford High School, Franklin Learning Center, and Simon Gratz High School-Mastery Charter created financial-literacy workshops. Northeast High School focused its financial workshops on immigrant students and won third place in the competition.
Students at Abraham Lincoln High School, Constitution High School, Philadelphia Performing Arts: A String Theory Charter School, and YESPHilly Accelerated High School tackled the school-to-prison pipeline by creating education and art programs aimed at reducing school suspensions.
Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice and West Philadelphia High School chose to fight cyberbullying with education campaigns. the Workshop School and the Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School promoted healthy lifestyles with an app and "Get Fit Saturdays."
Students from One Bright Ray Community High School took a sporting approach to a public-health issue. After finding only two public trash cans within five blocks of the school, they started a "slam dunk junk" campaign, attaching basketball-style backboards to trash cans to encourage students to throw away their trash.
Last year, Zachary Epps worked as the Philadelphia School District's director of advocacy and external engagement and helped implement the program in the city. He believed in its worth for students so much that now he is program manager of the Aspen Challenge.
"The ideas they create," Epps said, "will end up inspiring them the most."
The contest, Epps said, "provides tools, resources, inspiration for youth to be decision-makers on issues they face on a day-to-day basis."
This is the second consecutive year the competition was held in Philadelphia, the maximum period for any one city. Thus it will be elsewhere in 2019. All the contestants are eligible for a second round of funding to continue looking for solutions.
The panel of seven judges consisted of advocates, business leaders, and nonprofit leaders, including Danielle Wolf, the executive director of the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation; Otis Hackney, Philadelphia's chief education officer; and Nick Bayer, founder and chief executive officer of Saxbys.