A group of Lebanon Trail High School students with cognitive disabilities, paired with their general education peers, took first place in a national STEM competition designed to inspire students to confront environmental challenges.
The team, called Special STEMS, won a total of $25,000 in grants and scholarships after competing in both the regional and national rounds of the Lexus Eco Challenge.
The students worked together to reduce food waste, therefore lowering energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions. They also highlighted ways that gardening and locally-grown produce can benefit the environment and health of the community.
“This was not an easy challenge and all 10 students rose to the occasion,” said team advisor Pamela Carpenter. “They just proved to the world that children with special needs can achieve, thrive and teach others while being engaged in STEM education.”
The Special STEMs team consists of students in Functional Academics, a class for students with cognitive disabilities, and their Best Buddies mentors. Best Buddies is an organization that helps facilitate friendships to create opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The group took one of four first place national prizes in the Lexus Eco Challenge, which had no special category for students with cognitive disabilities, as well as the top regional prize in an 11-state region.
“It’s making all my dreams come true,” said team member Kiavash Kashanian.
The goal of the team was to show that all people, regardless of disability, can make vital contributions to their community and leave lasting social imprints.
“We competed in a national STEM competition, where there is no special category for students with intellectual disabilities, helping our friends from the Functional Academics class learn and rise to their leadership potential,” said Zachary Siegel, team member and president of the Best Buddies chapter at Lebanon Trail. “A lot of kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities don’t get the opportunity to compete or receive recognition like this. This prize means the world to our students with special needs. I am happy to be just a little piece of the puzzle to support them in their mission. It is inclusion at its best.”
Jennifer Lin, whose son Moses was part of the team, said fellow students took her son under their wing.
“It is a blessing to know that my son was included and accepted among his typical peers,” she said. “The ability for him to work alongside the typical kids and see the product of their work, it’s a huge sense of accomplishment for him.”
Carpenter says she has seen a difference in all the student participants.
“My Functional Academics students have developed tremendously socially and cognitively, and their heart for giving to others has definitely expanded,” she said. “For the first time they feel inclusivity.
“Even though the challenge is complete, the general education students voluntarily come to my classroom every single day and continue to engage and communicate with the Functional Academics students. They have learned to be selfless and they want to do more to spread the word that STEM education is not categorized to a certain IQ or academic level.”
Members of the Special STEMS team include students Michelle Briceno, Taj Diltz, Kiavash Kashanian, Moses Lin, Kayln Love, Shelby Luhring, Maggie McGrath, Zoe McKnight, Malcolm Oliveira and Zachary Siegel. Team advisors include teachers Pamela Carpenter and Kimberly Church.