Return to Headlines

Benny Benson Secondary School Participates in Project Invent to Help Alaskan Foster Kids

Benny Benson school picture
Benny Benson Secondary School is hidden away from passing motorists on East Tudor Road and sits adjacent to the Alaska Botanical Garden.

Benny Benson Secondary School is tucked quietly behind spruce trees bordering Bicentennial Park and the Alaska Botanical Garden. But the school is beginning to make noise due to its involvement with Project Invent, a national nonprofit that empowers students nationwide to invent technologies that make a difference. This is generating major buzz for its teachers, students, and school.

Teachers Kathryn Reiman and Ellen Piekarski lead the Project Invent team of five to seven students who are in the middle of developing a prototype duffle bag that hopes to address some of the biggest needs of foster kids in Alaska. Praise from a technology panel representing Facebook, Google, Amazon, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are so noteworthy due to Benny Benson's unique role in the District.

Piekarski stumbled across Project Invent while researching professional development opportunities. It was the perfect project for Benny Benson’s non-traditional teaching, Piekarski explained. “We’ve been working with kids doing project-based teaching and we’re wondering where to go.”

Not Your Average Alternative School

“When kids are not successful in traditional big high schools in Anchorage, they are able to come to Benny Benson and get caught up on their academics. We have a student community who are 100 percent at-risk – at-risk academically, as well as socially. While other schools have pockets of at-risk students, it’s really the concentration of those kind of students that make us different,” said Assistant Principal Maria Hernandez.

Benny Benson enrolls students who have usually experienced adverse childhood experiences in life, but given the right tools, can succeed. Eight different student programs are running simultaneously with individualized learning plans at any given time for their students. This is what they are known for – a place where students show up when nothing else is really working, said Hernandez. “This is the last opportunity they’ll have to graduate with a high school diploma.”

Teachers and staff who are trauma-informed are what really set Benny Benson apart in the District. Teachers work together to identify mental health and social needs of their students by conducting mental-health and first-aid training as well. A wellness team and routine wellness meetings are in place for structural support. “We go the extra mile to make sure [students] have what they need,” said Hernandez.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

The project goal is to help a specific community using technology in a new and innovative way. Here’s how it works. A team (or teams) of students rally around a cause benefiting community members or an organization. Students are required to invent something that has some sort of computer or technological element to it. So, a new type of wrench wouldn’t qualify, but something that already exists that’s improved or re-engineered could.

Piekarski and Reiman gave their students some easy options to consider, thinking they would go for it – like helping an animal shelter or the fire department. Their students had something else in mind entirely; they chose to help foster children. Piekarski and Reiman were shocked. “We thought they’d go for something easy! They chose very serious and heavy topics. We were like 'wow, where do we go from here?' They blew us away with their empathy,” said Reiman.

Students first interviewed those affected community members to get a sense of their struggle and to empathize. They talked to anyone they thought could benefit – foster kids, foster parents, and those who work with teens in foster care.

For inspiration and creative ideas on how to help foster kids, the Benny Benson Project Invent team didn’t have to look far, as some were in foster homes themselves. “We have kids living through the same problems that the community helpers we’re trying to help are. They were asking foster kids, 'what is a day in your life like' It just blows me away,” said Reiman.

An Idea is Born

Combining their own experiences with those of whom they interviewed, the team began designing something they thought any foster kid could benefit owning – a duffle bag. But this is Project Invent, so it couldn’t be any normal bag. “When we brainstormed what technology we wanted to throw in the duffle bag [called the Benny bag], we asked foster kids 'why do you need a duffle bag?' And it’s because when the social workers bring two trash bags [to take their belongings to a new home], everything they own goes in them, said Reiman. The Benny Benson teams learned this wasn’t safe or secure, and seen as humiliating. These were the hurdles to clear.

A multi-combination lock for the bag was incorporated to make it more secure. The bag owner and foster parent would each have a unique combination. A well-insulated pocket bag with a built-in ice-pack was incorporated to store food, with an added wrinkle – a smart-thermometer that would send an alert to a phone if the storage pocket got above 50 degrees. This is to help prevent refrigerated foods like milk and yogurt from going bad. The bag’s Achilles’ heel is something everyone is familiar with – it gets lost and no likelihood of getting it back. The Benny Benson team had a nifty, yet simple answer – utilize a GPS Wi-Fi-tracker that can pair with a phone to determine the location.

Student works
A Benny Benson Project Invent Team member experiments with the digital lock feature of the benny bag. (Credit: Ellen Piekarski)

The amount of student progress from the onset was a surprise, explained Hernandez. “All of us are shocked how fast this is moving, but also proud that our kids – that if they care about something – they’re going to put energy into it. They want their community of foster kids to have support.” Because of how well Benny Benson has done, they’ve garnered some spotlight too.

Taking the National Stage as the Underdog

“Project Invent is not typically for alternative schools, for at-risk students. Nationally, Project Invent is so proud of Ellen and Kathryn, using them as role models for alternative schools,” said Hernandez. Both Piekarski and Reiman were even invited as guests on the Project Invent podcast with author Dr. Ronda Beaman, where they talked about how they aren’t afraid of bucking classroom norms and empowering their students.

The underdog status is a point of pride for Benny Benson. Other schools have pods of students sponsored by the likes of MIT and corporate sponsorships from companies like Staples. “Despite all the limitations and lack of sponsorship or huge funds of money, I do think that because [the students] stuck with helping our community – our Alaskan community – that’s really what pushed this project forward,” said Hernandez. Benny Benson has reason to hold their head high. Of all the participating schools throughout the country, they are the only team from Alaska and one of the most diverse schools competing.

Project Invent demo days

The Benny Benson Project Invent Team will join 35+ other school teams during April and May for presentations to the Project Invent panel of judges.

The Benny Benson team will present the Benny bag virtually to tech-industry professionals on the Project Invent panel in April. Project Invent will offer underwriting and project funding if it garners enough support, with the goal of donating and/or marketing the bags. Their idea was presented to a local retailed who said they’d like to sell the benny bag exclusively at their store. Once a prototype is finalized, Piekarski intends to take the idea and share it with potential partners in foster care and mental health facilities. “It’s basically, like – hey, here’s a product we want to talk about that our kids came up with. We can’t do the manufacturing, but maybe you can take it to the next level,” explained Piekarski.

Even if Piekarski, Reiman, Hernandez, and the rest of the Benny Benson team walk away with nothing more than a pat-on-the-back for their attempt, they’d like to continue the project for the 2021-2022 school year due to strong interest and support for their idea.