Career exposure through real-world problem solving and team challenge – that was the concept for “Challenge Week” at Building 21 Philadelphia last Spring. What if we identify real-world

Students present their proposal for an outdoor redesign of our school courtyard.

problems and challenge teams of students to propose solutions? What if we create four day experiences that put our second-year students in the shoes of a landscape architect, an ER doctor, an executive chef, an app developer, or a social entrepreneur? Driven by our theory of action (Passion + Agency = Impact) we believe that connecting our students’ passions with real-world problems and then pushing them to develop authentic solutions will result in deep learning and growth.

So, we planned five “Challenges” for our cohort of second-years and let them choose one that best matched their emerging career interests. Students spent three days immersed in an industry-specific problem or case and collaborated with their peers, investigated with guest facilitators, and, finally, pitched solutions to panels of experts at the end of the week. Our students embraced the change of pace, immersive exposure, and time with industry experts. Final proposals included a new school lunch menu that was prepared for the panel to taste; a game-style presentation to inform young people on urgent community health issues; and a conceptual design complete with architect-guided sketches for our outdoor courtyard. Positive community feedback and a spirit of eagerness for the next challenge led us to scale our pilot for the 2018-2019 school year.

Learning from and building off our pilot, we’ve mapped out four “Challenge Days” for our first-years and two “Challenge Weeks” for our second-years. Our “Week” experiences will follow a similar format as before, offering students a choice of four experiences each “Week”. Our approach to “Days” is to plan four, each focused on a different career field and offer our first-years broad exposure in four industries over the course of the year.

Friday, November 2nd, was our first “Challenge Day”. We decided on healthcare as our industry focus, and then recruited a dynamic group of partners to facilitate sessions and participate in a panel to round out our day. With the help of Temple University’s School of Pharmacy, an emergency medicine pediatrician, and a team of social workers and social work interns, students embarked on three mini challenges. They problem solved an emergency asthma case, just as a doctor would in the ER, and examined their own personal “health maps”, drawing connections to asthma in the case and in their lives. Students were challenged to get to the root cause of our school medicine compliance problem and brainstorm solutions for encouraging their peers to turn in health forms and document emergency medicine. Finally, our students took a deeper look at the connection between trauma and health; they explored a redacted crisis case and offered strategies for helping the patient.


Students collaborate on their project board to display their proposal to the panel of experts.

To prep for our “Day”, we leveraged our “Foundations” studio, where first-year students focus on the skills, strategies, and tools necessary to be a successful learner at Building 21. We designed introductory exposure activities around the healthcare industry and careers in health related fields. On the days leading up to Friday’s “Challenge Day”, students engaged in the intro activities, inclusive of career inventories, which matched their interests to careers in healthcare. Students built personal “health maps” and explored how their lives and personal interests already connect to this industry. They examined occupational data to learn about the education required for different jobs in healthcare, the associated compensation for these jobs, and the demand for all healthcare jobs in our Philadelphia region.

“Challenge Day” was met with excitement and enthusiasm from students, teachers, and partners. Our first-years provided positive and constructive feedback and look forward to their next “Challenge Day” in December. Our successful first go at this version of our “Challenges” provided the following  meaningful lessons learned:

More choice! When working to build experiences that map to personal passion, it seems like this is often the take-a-way. And given school structures, each time we set out to design an alternative schedule with flexible groupings, it is a hard thing to get just right. But the request from students for more and different exposure is a good problem to have. We know that we need to continue to build our network of partners, who will co-design and facilitate robust, real-world exposure experiences.

Additionally, when working as a team to solve a problem, relationships are key. Integrating activities that support team dynamics into our “Days” will strengthen our students’ interpersonal skills.

Students are challenged to prepare an alternative, healthy school lunch.

Next time, we’ll build this into the introductory activities, just as we have for our “Week” experience. Additionally, establishing relationships among our students and guest facilitators is critical. Our Temple Pharmacy partners offered this feedback and suggested spending some time at the beginning of the sessions “just getting to know each other.” A great take-a-way that we will put into practice next time.

We look forward to continuing our learning through “Challenges” in the months to come. For more information or resources, please visit