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The Birth of The Stars Challenge

In the Spring of 2005, we read Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat in preparation for our trip to China with the Rutgers University Executive MBA program that is directed by Dr. Farrokh Langdana.  We were surprised by the profile of higher education in the US painted by Tom Friedman.  Places like India, Russia, China, and Europe are experiencing an increase in the number of students entering the math, science, and technology fields whereas the trend is the exact opposite in the US.  Enrollment in these areas at both the graduate and undergraduate levels in the US is declining.

Tom Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, is well written, engaging, scary, largely anecdotal, but definitely worth reading if you haven’t already done so.  Clyde Prestowitz‘s book Three Billion New Capitalists is full of data and statistics that complement Friedman’s book.

Our trip to China reinforced much of what we had read.  The growth is staggering. For example, approximately one-quarter of the world’s construction cranes are in Shanghai! The people hunger to get ahead and better themselves.  The focus on education as a vehicle for both self-improvement and national improvement is intense.  We came home even more concerned about how the US is going to maintain its leadership role in the fields of science and technology, and by extension, to remain the leader in innovation.  After all, innovation has been fueling our standard of living improvements over the past century.

We felt compelled to do something – we’ve been blessed with good educations, families, friends, and careers.  It is time to give something back and we thought the kernel of what to do must lie in the areas of science and education.  Two areas that we are both passionate about.  And two areas that are critical for the US to maintain its role as the hotbed of innovation.  For a couple of months we struggled with what to do.

One evening in the summer of 2005, as we watched the sun set from the beach in Naples, Florida, Margaret Ann made the observation that there are lots of places like Huntington Learning Centers and Sylvan Learning Centers for students struggling with school, but there didn’t seem to be comparable places for students excelling in school.  Maybe we could create such an environment for students really good in math and science.  Maybe we could reach out to the students who are candidates to be our future scientists, engineers, technologists, and innovators.

That’s the story of the birth of the idea of The Stars Challenge.  Since then, we’ve been working to make the idea into something real.  We decided our goal would be to identify bright students interested in math and science and provide them with a program designed to really excite them.  Motivate them to want to continue studying math and science.  We wanted the program to be very hands-on, problem-solving based, and require teamwork – all requirements to be effective professionals. We needed to find the best teachers to work with the students.  We thought hosting the program on a university campus would be motivational.  We struggled with what age students to begin the program with, but after talking with many experts and looking at data that suggests interest in science and math drops dramatically in high school, we decided to launch our program with 8th graders.

In the fall of 2005, we formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation.  We worked to recruit teachers and students.  We worked with Monmouth University to find a way to partner with them to make the program a reality.  And finally….

On January 24, 2006, we began the first Stars Challenge course at Monmouth University.  We accepted 18 talented and motivated students from nine local schools into our Introduction to Experimental Design course. Of the 18 students, we gave three needs-based scholarships to talented students who are on the federal free lunch program.  The course was taught by Mr. Michael T. Roche, a highly acclaimed teacher at High Technology High School in Lincroft.

That was the beginning.  Since then we've expanded to add courses for 6th and 7th graders, added Summer Camp at Sandy Hook, a Girls Coding Summer Camp, and a Robotics Summer Camp.

In 2016, we continued to expand and appointed Mr. Michael T. Roche as our Executive Director.  Steve and Margaret Ann Chappell, the founders, remained active from Florida doing the "back office" work while Mr. Roche was our visible presence in New Jersey.  

Then 2020 and Covid came upon us.  We just finished our Winter 2020 courses in March of 2020 when New Jersey shut down.  We haven't run any courses since then and, sadly, in 2021 decided to wind down The Stars Challenge after 16 successful years.  About 3500 students took one or more of our courses over that time.