Deloitte Design Challenge 2017: Hack-a-Box​

Written by AmeriCorps Member Emma Raleigh

“So, what are these students lined up for?”

I scrambled to explain what was about to take place in the school cafeteria when this question was asked of me by a passing teacher.


“They’re here because they were chosen by their City Year to participate in a design thinking challenge with Deloitte,” I said. 


He looked shocked, impressed, and finally a wonderful mix of proud and happy. I quickly matched his smile because we silently came to the understanding that these kids are special. 


A few weeks before the O.W. Holmes Middle School team partnered with the City Year Dallas staff and Deloitte to host this design thinking event, we all met to test out the challenge called “Hack a Box”. The challenge is loosely connected to the idea of computer hacking, and those who chose to accept are first tasked with creating a working circuit, then an alarm system to protect a small gift box from intruders, and finally with “hacking” a way into that box without setting off the alarm.



Admittedly, I was not cut out for this particular exercise in patience, teamwork, and basic engineering principles. In City Year, we are encouraged approach all situations with a growth mindset. Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and ability are malleable, and that while we may not be able to accomplish something now, we might yet. 


“I can’t do this!” I yelled impatiently after about five minutes of trying.


“Yet!” one of my teammates shouted back.


I nodded and continued, still completely unsure how to tackle what lay before me. 


Design thinking challenges are said to foster resourcefulness, creativity, and offer students opportunities to approach problems in a practical and planned way. This doesn’t just apply to fun activities that get you out of fifth period. Design thinking promotes decision making skills in other areas too, and gets kids interested in careers like engineering, a field lacking in gender and racial diversity


Fast forward to December 8th, the day of the challenge. Students who expressed interest in participating signed up a week prior, and our team selected roughly 20 students from each grade. With the challenge underway and alarms buzzing left and right, I saw my own frustration and resignation in several students’ faces. City Year Dallas staff, Corps Members, and representatives from Deloitte worked extraordinarily hard to keep them focused and encouraged, and after about an hour of teen angst and chaos, students were making major breakthroughs. Growth mindset pays off!


One group of sixth graders was arduously working to finish their box, unfazed by the many adult spectators looking over their shoulders. While three of the students negotiated where to place a strip of electrical tape, one girl quickly shoved a detailed blueprint into my hands, saying that she was in charge of designing her team’s box. I was floored by their ingenuity and grace with each other as they worked through obstacles and failed attempts. By the end, they had created a popsicle stick switch that deftly disabled the alarm. 


Another team seemed to have all but given up when an eighth-grade boy who wasn’t originally signed up to attend swooped in to connect all the dots. He is described by his City Year as being concerned with fitting in, but is “so brilliant.” Quietly, determinedly, he finished the box seconds before time was up. Upon many congratulations and “good job”s, he remained modest, but you could tell he was proud of his work. 


So often in our schoolhouses, we as City Year become consumed by the tutoring sessions and check-ins that we forget how much our students can do without even a touch of help. The Deloitte Design Challenge opened my eyes to the unique abilities and maturity of the students I see in the halls, gyms, and classrooms of O.W. Holmes every day between 7:30 AM and 5:00 PM. Students were asked to complete an “exit ticket” as a way for us to receive feedback, and give them a chance to reflect on their experiences. 


“When is the next time we get to do this?” one student wrote.


I have the same question, and I eagerly await the next chance to see our amazing students conquer whatever is thrown at them.

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