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‘Passion project’: CCSD teacher wins $200K in education contest

Sunrise Mountain High School teacher Ben Nguyen came up with an idea five years ago — building a web portal to feature local jobs in an understandable way for students.

Now, he has $200,000 to pursue what he calls his “passion project.”

Nguyen is among three winners of “THE BIG IDEA CHALLENGE: An Education Innovation Contest” announced Monday by the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education and the Engelstad Foundation.

Applicants were invited to respond to a question: “Who out there has an idea that can help take Nevada’s educational landscape to the next level?”

Receiving the funding was a welcome surprise and will allow him to pursue what was a “pie in the sky” idea, Nguyen told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

After building out the platform for Las Vegas, Nguyen hopes to expand it to other areas of the state.

“I really want to make this a Nevada endeavor,” he said.

The contest was an “incredible experiment,” Kris Engelstad, trustee of the Engelstad Foundation, said in a news release.

“Our winners embarked on quite a journey to win and achieve funding,” she said. “We can’t wait to see all they do to take their ideas — and education in our state — to new heights.”

Applications for the challenge were accepted from January through March, and more than 200 were completed, the news release said.

The contest’s final round included high-profile judges such as singer-songwriter Jewel, tennis player Andre Agassi and television host Mike Rowe.

Nguyen’s winning project

Nguyen’s “A Platform for the Future” concept includes “building a platform for localized job shadowing, training, and mentorship,” according to the news release.

His goal is to have at least 1,000 users within the first year after it’s launched and more than 10 partnering organizations that are regularly contributing.

Nguyen came up with the idea in 2017 after reflecting on what he was hearing from students. Once students graduated from his classes and continued on to college or the workforce, they often struggled to navigate what opportunities existed, he said.

The idea he proposed was initially picking five to 10 companies or organizations in Las Vegas and to “feature jobs in a way that’s understandable for kids,” he said.

A web portal will be a centralized place where students can find information such as requirements for certain jobs and where they can get licenses needed for those positions, Nguyen said.

It will also include videos that feature people who work in each job, as well as contact people, and how to apply.

Nguyen plans to launch a website early next year and will continue to work on a mobile app. He said he plans to use a good portion of the contest funding to hire people for his project’s leadership team.

He said it will take a while to build out certain aspects of what he wants to do, including creating opportunities for mentorship.

Nguyen, an automation technology teacher and head robotics coach, is in his ninth year of teaching. After graduating from Dartmouth College, he arrived at the school in 2014 as a physics teacher through Teach For America.

“I learned to realize the importance of education,” he said.

It’s not the first time Nguyen has been recognized for his efforts. In 2019, he won a prestigious $25,000 Milken Educator Award.

Nguyen said many of his students go into the workforce instead of seeking long academic careers.

In career and technical education programs, students are learning about skills and trades — “things that actually create physical value in the world,” he said.

Nguyen said that he previously worked with a Las Vegas-based startup company and that he has been thinking about how to bring the agility of business and technology to a school system where change moves slowly.

Other winners

Another contest winner, Las Vegas-based retired teacher Eleanor Cormier and her Project 300 Early Learning Academy model, will receive $50,000.

Funding will go toward “an online virtual tutoring program for kindergarteners in urban elementary schools of Clark County to strengthen their literacy skills utilizing Common Core State Standards in English language arts,” according to the release.

Cormier wants to serve 100 students by the end of 2023.

Mindful Music Moments will receive $25,000 to expand into the state by launching a pilot program next year. Its Nevada organizer is Henderson resident Dorothy Blake.

It’s a “combination of mindful, creative prompts and world-class music” that allows students and employees a daily moment to “center and ground” before learning begins, according to the release.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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