Empathize, Design, Present and Grow

Aspen Challenge’s secret sauce is student-focused design

8 min read

Aspen Challenge-Dallas

“The special sauce is that everything we do is focused on the student,” Aspen Challenge Director Katie Fitzgerald says. Fitzgerald has sat at the table since the program launched in 2013 and explains that since, Aspen Challenge has not deviated from a sole focus on the student experience and the educator experience.  


“Program content is designed and devised by students. That’s absolutely part of why I think this program is so successful—because we actually walk the talk when we tell young people they matter,” Fitzgerald says. “We give permission to young people to step out of their comfort zone and think big, get creative and shoot for the stars.” 


Aspen Challenge seeks to spark leadership, lift up the voice of young people, and inspire participants to contribute to make their own city and the world better. Each year, the program gathers teams in new urban school districts that have been historically disenfranchised to create unique solutions to issues important in their own communities. Teams are challenged to pick an idea, develop their own project around the idea, and work to create real change. 


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The 2021 Miami Challenge began in February, when 20 student and teacher teams from across the city gathered for the day to hear from speakers presenting on issues, including mental health, poverty alleviation and climate change. Teams were given ten weeks to design and launch their projects, virtually presenting solutions in April to a panel of judges. The winning team received prizes, including technology and scholarships. 


Marville Marcelin returned last spring to participate in the Aspen Challenge for the second year. She is in grade 11 at Dorothy Wallace COPE and served as unofficial team captain of eight students at COPE, an alternative high school setting for students who are also parents. After school, she plans to study law. This year’s challenge was remote, but even though a large, in-person event wasn’t possible, Marcelin says the host made the event fun. 


“We wanted to do the Challenge to help the people in our community. Since we have a lot of teens that deal with mental illness, we get what other teens are going through,” she says. Marcelin decided to participate a second year because it she liked being part of the supportive community. “We help each other. We respect each other. And we get to share our opinions.”  


Marcelin’s team solution is to create a peer counseling network for Miami-Dade County alternative high schools. Students will be identified who may benefit from community mental health support, and the team is creating a mental health student awareness campaign called You Matter.  


“Folks should be paying attention to the incredible work of young people,” Fitzgerald says. “We created the platform, and we engage the community. But make no mistake about it, the hard part, and what is achieved and accomplished is one hundred percent created by the young people and educators.” 


“Protective factors are also part of the special sauce,” Aspen Institute Executive Director of Youth Leadership Programs John Dugan says. “We invest in a sustainable way, so we’re not just an interloper as a program. Each school district understands we’re here to help and stand with them. That’s the invisible architecture that makes the program work.” 


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A trio of high-impact practices emerged when Aspen Challenge was being refined and developed. First, the curriculum applies a project-based learning framework to integrate knowledge and skills. Second, using the science of cognition, the program works to stimulate more complex cognitive development by disrupting binaries of yes and no or right and wrong when there aren’t simple solutions. Finally, Aspen Challenge provides a continuity of experience at the school level, where young people participate to catalyze community change.  


To learn what keeps students like Marcelin engaged and champion the experience to peers, Dugan began an evaluation process in 2017. Working to capture and articulate what happens on the ground during the challenge, he found that first and foremost, program design matters. “The way we design a program and infuse high impact practices directly correlates to outcomes we see students gain,” Dugan says. “For Aspen Challenge, the big headline that hit all of us in the face was that over the course of the eight-week period we can achieve greater gains than the maximum gain after one year of college.”  

For Aspen Challenge, the big headline that hit all of us in the face was that over the course of the eight-week period we can achieve greater gains than the maximum gain after one year of college.

John Dugan, Aspen Institute Executive Director of Youth Leadership Programs


Second, Dugan learned that the degree to which a program can truly by place-based better allows participants into the solution-making process. Finally, he found you can't have impact if you're not cultivating teacher trainers at the same time, shifting Aspen Challenge to encompass a train-the-trainer model.  


Fitzgerald adds that the program’s learning outcomes are derived from 21st century skills to build a social impact entrepreneurship curriculum. “Social perspective-taking and social generativity are really two key outcomes that we measure for, as well as igniting student agency and leadership efficacy,” she says.  


Qualitative data from student participants surfaced three common responses for how the program provides lasting impact: “I didn’t know I was worthy of this investment,” “I felt like my voice was used for the first time,” and “I’m going to keep this playbook with me for the rest of my life.” Dugan says the experience can become a roadmap that students can use to think through future challenges. 


It’s too soon for the Aspen Challenge team to analyze data from this remote, pandemic year, when the program had to be completely redesigned and delivered virtually. “It was important to us to not shift our impact measurements from efficacy, generativity, perspective taking, and so on,” Fitzgerald says. “We want to see how this virtual environment will impact the individual student.” 


We want every single team to understand that they've achieved remarkable things. Because the transformation is evident and it’s obvious and it's just extremely powerful.

Katie Fitzgerald, Aspen Challenge Director

Whether future Aspen Challenge events are held in-person or a hybrid model, Dugan and Fitzgerald see the future of the Challenge student-centered. “We want every single team to understand that they've achieved remarkable things. Because the transformation is evident and it’s obvious and it's just extremely powerful,” Fitzgerald says. “We’re contributing to a movement of people who want to integrate learning science into practice,” Dugan adds. “Not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. And that’s how we create systemic opportunity.”  


Bezos Family Foundation supports Aspen Challenge at the Aspen Institute in general operations and programming. The national youth leadership program that elevates youth voice, enables youth to develop their leadership capabilities, and empowers them to improve their own community, our nation, and the world.