A common area of conversation in the educational community is the issue of "summer learning loss," or the drain of knowledge that students experience in their time away from the classroom over the summer. Ottawa Area Schools are combatting summer learning loss amongst 11th- and 12th-grade students through a hands-on critical thinking experience called futurePREP IChallengeU.

"IChallengeU is an innovative two-week program for high school students where they get to explore real-life problems that organizations are really struggling with and there's no set answer to," explains Jason Pasatta of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD).

The full-time program, which runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for two weeks in the summer, pairs students with local organizations and companies that have problems in need of a solution. The students work to solve the problems and have access to a group of "master teachers" if they need help.

"We're going to bring fresh eyes, new ideas, kids who have all kinds of technology skills, interests and abilities, and put them in a setting where they can use that stuff freely," says Jeff Van Huis of Zeeland West High School.

The IChallengeU program partners with local businesses such as Haworth, Innotec, Holland Hospital, Greater Ottawa County United Way, Zeeland Farm Services and Hope College and pairs each with a team of students.

"At Innotec, we're using the IChallengeU students to help us figure out how to attract talent," says Human Resource Director Steve Deters. "We hire a lot of engineers out of college, and we want to understand the millennial mind."

The teams present their solution to the organization, who picks which team has the best idea. The winning team goes on to "regionals," where the team presents the solution to a panel of judges that decides which of the solutions presented is the best solution overall.

"It's a great way to meet people, and it's been a wonderful way to just get out to people and help, and make a difference in the community," says student Mike Michalski.

Jason Pasatta of the OAISD says the benefits of the program go both ways.

"The point of this program is really ensuring that 100 percent of our students not only graduate from high school but have the interest, the passion and the skills to go on to something, whatever that might be," Jason says. "We want to make sure all of our students are ready and able to go on to something after high school."

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