PA Dept. of Transportation Design Challenge

Wolf Administration’s “Innovations Challenge” Invites Students to Develop Technologies, Solutions to Combat Roadway Litter

Harrisburg, PA – The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced today that students in grades 9-12 are invited to participate in the third PennDOT Innovations Challenge which encourages students to use their problem-solving, creative and strategic-thinking abilities to solve real-world transportation challenges in a competition among their peers.

This year’s Innovations Challenge asks students to look at cost-effective technologies and innovative solutions – aside from laws, programs and educational campaigns – that can be developed in the next five to 10 years to help PennDOT more efficiently, effectively and safely control litter along roadways.

Last year, PennDOT spent nearly $13 million cleaning up roadside litter across Pennsylvania.  In addition, nearly 5,000 volunteers spend countless hours participating in the Adopt-A-Highway program each year. These dollars and volunteer hours could have otherwise been spent on delivering a better transportation network and making Pennsylvania a better state in which to live.

“While we are grateful for the selfless actions of our thousands of Adopt-A-Highway volunteers, we continue to look for ways to curb the amount of roadside litter across Pennsylvania,” said PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards. “Through the PennDOT Innovations Challenge, students can develop a long-term, sustainable solution to address this ongoing challenge, and make Pennsylvania a cleaner and more beautiful place to live.”

“In addition to a public health hazard and eyesore, the litter along Pennsylvania’s roads is an environmental problem, degrading soil, water, and wildlife,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.  “DEP is excited to support this opportunity to have young innovators bring fresh solutions to this longtime problem for the benefit of current and future generations of Pennsylvania.”

The Innovations Challenge aims to not only help students explore real transportation challenges that PennDOT is facing, but also open their minds to the very real possibility of working for PennDOT after graduation.

“Engineering and equipment operator positions are key to building and maintaining Pennsylvania’s vast road and bridge network,” Richards added. “However, PennDOT employs more than 11,000 Pennsylvanians from a wide array of educational backgrounds in nearly 400 job classifications.”

Regional Innovations Challenge winners will be selected and invited to compete in Harrisburg for the state championship. This year, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) and the Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful (KPB) organization are providing a combined total award of $3,000 to be divided among the first, second and third place statewide winning teams.

For complete Innovations Challenge details, visit The deadline for submissions is December 20, 2019.

MEDIA CONTACTS: Jan Huzvar, PennDOT, 717-783-8800

Deb Klenotic DEP, 717-783-9954

# # #

Michael S. Taluto| Safety Press Officer

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

District 4-0 Office

55 Keystone Industrial Park | Dunmore, Pa 18512

Office 570.963.3502 | Fax 570.614.2957 *


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When a Plan Comes Together

Since Phil Holcombe’s Monday discussion with our classes on the value and methods of branding, we’ve been discovering the common signals that seem to emanate from the documents we’ve explored about this class and others like it.

Today we got to the point where the two classes had (as smaller groups) defined their common signals and studied the common signals in light of our mission, vision, and values.


The students were helped along in their evolution of thought by the creation of Point-of-View statements, each group receiving a different stakeholder to design a persona for.   One group received notice that their user was a student who knew nothing about NOVA Lab.  Another group received a member of the school board who knew little about the class.  And another was asked to create the persona for an administrator in the building who knew something but not much.

The magic in the creation of these personas was beautiful.  I wasn’t sure how the trip would be taken by the different groups, but I was sure we’d end up closer to understanding our brand and our marketing task.  And I wasn’t wrong.

The group who was given the generic character of a student who knew next to nothing about NOVA Lab came up with:

“The inquisitive, perplexed, dynamic) high school student needs to find a course that makes him/her feel that their ideas matter because it will make them feel secure in combining their creativity with their academics.”

This was amazing because it shows a good deal of empathy* for a group of people who are not even in our class but who very-well should be.  They nailed the “feel” section of the statement as well.

Another group who had received “a parent of a student thinking about the class” created this persona:

The skeptical, weary parent needs to attain information in a way that makes him/her feel reassured because she is unsure whether the class is productive or not.

I pointed this out to the students, but here I want to say two things.  First, I’ve learned so much by listening to and watching the creation of these statements.   Students dug into their own experiences or revealed discussions they’d had with peers or faculty, all in an effort to help make what we do in NOVA Lab more transparent and move it from something people take because they believe in the concept to something they will take because of the things we DO.

361gwdWe’ve started the doing, and if this is any indication of the capabilities of this community of learners, I’m going to be writing a boatload of effusive posts.

We’ll be putting the branding on hold, most likely, until we have a number of student projects in the hopper.  Following the question of one of my students about “How do you design for something that you don’t even have yet?” Phil Holcombe’s response was “give it time and space”

And so we shall.

*  Of course, if we want to be a stickler about it, this is very low-level empathy building, and the kids know it.  The next step (and some of them already talked about it) would be to go out and do empathy interviews with the different people behind their persona’s.  But I don’t want to turn this, at least not right now, into a year-long project in brand creation.  If some of the students want to devote time to that because the learning they are taking away from it feeds their ideas for their future college or career lives, that’s great. 

I have been to the Mountain Top…

I ran across this article today and was reminded of some of the background work that went into the creation of inNOVAtion Lab.  In the summer of 2015, accompanied by my superintendent and our STEM coordinator, I visited Lehigh’s Mountain Top Program.  We were led through the space by Dr. Sarah Stanlick.  The immensity of the space was matched only by the immensity of the scope of the students’ projects.

Our visit to the Mountaintop was precipitated by our district’s slowly growing focus on student-driven learning.  After hearing about the program from a neighboring district’s Director of Learning and Innovation, I knew we had to visit.   I wasn’t disappointed.  The space and the work we could see all exuded a feeling of authenticity and students who owned the learning.

I knew, after visiting Moutaintop, we could do this at my district.

While it may have taken a few years, we achieved a semester-long iteration of the class and then, a few years later, a full year during which students learn about innovation, project management, and how to take charge of their own learning by setting goals, determining criteria for success, and employing  design thinking as the heuristic that drives the learning.

inNOVAtion Lab is that class.   We’re on a roll.  Follow our progress as we transition from guided projects to student-driven work over the next few weeks.

Thank you Lehigh University for helping us find our way to new, purposeful learning experiences for our students.

featured image via Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Philadelphia Tech Elevator

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Check out the Philadelphia Tech Elevator, a coding bootcamp that might set you up for a future of coding and creating a better world…virtually speaking.


They have a free aptitude test and you can take it online.

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*featured image found here


Who’s Telling Your Story?

Today the students in NOVA Lab got a chance to hear from the undergraduate director of Industrial Design at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Phil Holcombe.  Phil is also the principal designer at the Educational Design Consultancy, Form & Faculty.

The students’ first real-world design challenge is to help create the brand and story of the class itself.  So, after doing a deep dive last week into the texts and supporting documents that have helped shape the class, they have set to the task of listening for the recurrent “signals” in those texts that they can then “amplify” through different modes of branding.

 Image Source: Moz

Phil’s discussion today was based on the work he has done in the past building brands for his own company as well as larger organizations, like the Smithsonian Institution.

Phil lead off with a definition of branding that might have caught some of the students off guard:  “Branding is not the story you tell the world about yourself and your company, it is the story they tell about you when you are not around.”  There’s a lot to unpack in that simple statement, none the least of which is the ethical dimension inherent in the phrasing.  Namely, if we want to be seen as authentic and genuine, then we cannot pretend otherwise.  It seems so self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised at how many people forget the need to do just that.

The students were on their A-game today, asking probing questions about good brands, overbranding, and how to brand when you don’t even have a product yet.

Our story is still being written, and I imagine it will be for some time to come until we get more comfortable with the discomfort of not always knowing which way we’re going.  One would think that after almost 15 years using design thinking and similar methods of self-determined learning in the classroom that I’d have more of a grasp on things.

I don’t

Every class is different.  They need different things, have different gaps, are stronger in some areas than in others. The art of the thing is in knowing how to spot the differences, and in knowing how to help them discover what they need.

Somehow that is part of our story…part of our brand.  It’s a difficult story to get others to tell when we’re not around.  But it’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

*featured image courtesy of: