On March 11, 2020, the world as it was known changed when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Restaurants shut down, toiletries became scarce and hugs a thing of the past. While businesses worked around the clock to adjust and healthcare professionals braved the virus to treat patients, a different sector of frontline workers also made sure its most precious cargo wasn't left behind — teachers.
Nearly six months after the pandemic began — and at the start of a new school year — a newsletter from education influencer Brooke Brown caught the interest of Hernando, Mississippi, teacher Rachel Stigler. The activity: the EPIC Challenge, an opportunity for students to fundraise for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Stigler thought the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activity would be a great fit for her class of gifted students.
"I emailed my principal and asked would this be something we could do. It was like it was designed for our gifted classes with the STEM focus and it sounded like something they would be interested in," said Stigler.
The EPIC (experimenting, prototyping, inventing and creating) challenge is a STEM-focused curriculum that allows students to imagine, research, design, create and present an invention or idea that would improve life for kids like those at St. Jude. It was created by ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, in collaboration with the St. Jude Educator Ambassador Network.
That focus on helping patients is something Stigler says provided an even more meaningful experience for her students.
And the passion the scholars had for helping sick kids near their hometown showed in their creative inventions. A medicine dispenser, a cleaning robot and even a sickness zapper were just a few of the creations students brought to life. But for Stigler, who was a fan of every invention, one project in particular stood out.
"It looked like an iPad," Stigler said. "She had two apps on it. One app was for patients and they could push a button. The patients had been assigned a survivor, so if they were feeling scared or needed words of encouragement they could basically page their survivor by pushing the app button. When the survivor had a free moment, they could send [the patient] a message — or call or FaceTime them — and be there emotionally to provide support."
Projects created for the EPIC Challenge were more than a class assignment, they were also fundraisers for St. Jude. Family and friends could visit the classroom's fundraising page and donate either to an individual project or to the classroom. So far, Mrs. Stigler's class has raised nearly $400 for the kids of St. Jude.
For students like Summer, the challenge encouraged her to get creative and think critically. "It encourages [us] to think of what the children of St. Jude need, what the doctors need and what the families need. It encourages students to use their brainpower for others," she said.
And for Stigler, watching her students create STEM projects for a greater purpose was gratifying. "It was extremely eye-opening to see their wheels turning, to see how invested they were. A lot of them instantly thought of robots because of STEM, but a lot of them took it, in my opinion, to the next level. They got connected with it emotionally and that was very special to watch. They weren't thinking about themselves, it was a very selfless task."
As for what's next for the Hernando students, opportunities both in the classroom and as future STEM leaders are endless.
Have a budding inventor in your life who loves St. Jude? Students may participate in the free program at any time, whether in the classroom or at home. For more information visit the St. Jude EPIC Challenge online.