Angel Rojas, Olivier Charles-Pierre, and Pierce Dono—eighth grade students at St. Vincent Ferrer School in Delray Beach—were recently awarded $13,500 for their Philanthropy Tank entry titled Idea Lab.
Their entry, which is to provide engineering tools and develop curriculum for an Idea Lab at Hope Rural School, was recently presented at the 2020 Palm Beach Philanthropy Tank finals event streamed online April 27.
“It was really surreal to find out that we are now able to change students’ lives and give them the technology they deserve through this funding,” said Dono.
The Palm Beach Philanthropy Tank encourages students to identify social issues affecting the community and equips them to develop and execute sustainable solutions to these problems. The program grants participating students mentorship from leading philanthropists and local business leaders, as well as a chance to present their charity program ideas in front of a panel of philanthropist-investors. According to the organizations’ mission, “The fundamental aims of Philanthropy Tank are to help shape students’ leadership paths and, through their creative solutions, address and improve social issues in our community.”
The St. Vincent Ferrer students first developed the concept for the Idea Lab in the Design Thinking course taught by Lisa Gustinelli Polajenko, the IT administrator and educational technology specialist at St. Vincent Ferrer School.
“The class centers on learning the problem-solving method and its application through technology,” said Polajenko. “We took that one step further by using empathy, together with design thinking, to affect change in our community. This also aligns with our mission as Catholics to put our faith into action.”
Rojas, Charles-Pierre and Dono aim to start the Idea Lab in the library of Glades-based Hope Rural School, a Catholic elementary school for students in grades pre-k through fifth. Rojas explained that the Hope Rural School community consists largely of immigrant and migrant workers, whose children are learning English as a second language.
“The Idea Lab is meant as a place where students can gain the skills that will enable them to be leaders and problem solvers in their community. We want to help students grow their creativity so that they can be change-makers,” said Rojas.
During their virtual 3-minute pitch to the philanthropist-investors, Rojas, Charles-Pierre and Dono explained to the panelists that funding for the Idea Lab would go towards supplies such as laptops, robots, software, and simple building materials with which Hope Rural students can tinker and invent for hands-on design and construction. The pitch was carefully formed over the course of 30 hours, which included spending Saturday mornings at the Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach working with Andrew Huber, the managing director of Bank of American Palm Beach and volunteer mentor for Philanthropy Tank.
“It was a lot of time and effort to get ourselves ready for the pitch. We had to submit detailed reports and paperwork about our project. We prepared a lot with Mr. Huber and we even got to practice with the other nominees. It was a learning process for everyone,” said Charles-Pierre.
Polajenko was especially proud of the fact that among the entries chosen to present, her students were the only middle school group to participate in the Philanthropy Tank. The others, she shared, were high school students. “I was worried at first that my students would be intimidated by the older groups, but they rose to the occasion and have grown so much from this experience.”
Rojas, Charles-Pierre and Dono have embarked on a project that embodies true community effort. The St. Vincent Ferrer students partnered with teaching students from Florida Atlantic University and educators from Hope Rural School to develop an ongoing curriculum appropriate for elementary grade levels. A combination of presentations, videos and hands-on lessons will be implemented in the Idea Lab through this collaboration.
In the beginning stages of their project, Rojas, Charles-Pierre and Dono visited Hope Rural School to introduce the students to robotics. For that day’s demonstration, Charles-Pierre operated a small robot from an iPhone, which he coded to ask the students their names and then guide them through simple math problems.
“It was amazing to see them so engaged in the lesson because of the robot. Imagine what they could do in the future once they know how to code and engineer their way through any problem,” Charles-Pierre said.
The Idea Lab will be cultivated and executed throughout the coming year, and Rojas, Charles-Pierre and Dono will continue to receive mentorship through Philanthropy Tank. Over the summer, the students will also work with Florida Atlantic University to prepare the curriculum that will drive the lab’s longevity.
To learn more about St. Vincent Ferrer School and Hope Rural School, visit stvfschool.org and hoperuralschool.org. To watch the virtual Philanthropy Tank Palm Beach pitch presentation, visit philanthropytank.org. Follow the Office of Catholic Schools on Facebook @DoPBCatholicSchools and on Instagram @dopbcatholicschools.