“You Unplugged”: Challenge #1 in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps

by Melissa Harding


For one day this past month, over 1,250 middle and high school students turned off their iPods, Kindles and computers and went outside, as part of the first challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps. The first challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps for both middle and high school students, You Unplugged, asked participants to spend an entire day unplugged from all the social and entertainment technology in their lives. High school students wrote a reflective essay describing their time unplugged, whereas middle school students both wrote essays and had the option of also writing an original poem about the experience. While some of these essays reflect the drama of adolescence, many of them were striking in their creativity, honesty and scope.

Many students talked about how they were better able to connect with friends, family and even the natural world. Winning essayist from Springdale Junior High writes, “Without the distraction of a bright little screen I became more aware of my surroundings. Admittedly, if I would have been asked on day one what are the colors of the flowers in my flower bed I would not have known. On day two I studied their dark purple color, their shape, and how the rain drops stuck to the petals. I went for a walk in nature and observed.”

Another middle school student spent her day making art, from practicing her flute to painting. The second place author, from Shaler Area Middle School, felt that being away from her electronics improved her art so much that she has committed to reduced technology use overall, even after the challenge. She writes, “As for playing the flute, I can now feel the music that I play. Notes pour out naturally. I’m prepared for my Alley Valley Honors Band audition and hold the front seat in concert at school, simply because I chose to practice for 50 minutes each day in place of watching TV. Cutting down on electronics has changed my life for the better.”

The high school entries focused much more on how difficult it was to give up technology; many felt that their lifelines to civilization had been cut. The first place winning author, from Gateway High School, wrote that his day without technology made him realize that he was “addicted” to his devices. “Based on this experiment, I am pretty sure that electronics act like a drug with their addicting effect on my mind.” He goes on to write, “The huge usage of them is a major waste of time and a good example of how Americans live far above their means. They don’t serve any practical uses yet we overuse them all day long.”

Other students wrote that they were ready to make a real change in their lives. While no one wrote that they were giving up technology for good, many said that they would take more time every day to look out the window and go outside. The third place author, from the A.W. Beattie Career Center, writes, “That night when I went to bed, I decided to leave all of my things unplugged. I didn’t need them to entertain me. I went to bed knowing what I had learned today. I have the quietness of the outdoors, the sunlight, warm clothing, and a nice book collection. I can always go take a walk, and I can go play at the park. I honestly could go more days that didn’t involve all the batteries and chargers of our electronics, for just some of the silence, sweetness and activity of a natural day.”

Overall, most participants reflected that they learned a great deal from their technology fast. They spent more time with family, friends and pets. They also spent more time outside; many reported feeling free and happy outdoors. The consensus was that while this was a tough assignment, it was a good thing to do.

Thomas Huxley, contemporary of Charles Darwin, said about the disconnect between people and nature: “To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.” Many youth today are walking through a hall of backwards pictures, never knowing what they are missing. Fortunately, through challenges like You Unplugged and others, some are flipping these paintings over and discovering their beauty.

Winners of the You, Unplugged: Nearby Nature challenge will be interviewed about their experience on The Saturday Light Brigade family radio station on November 22 at 10:05 am. Tune in to WRCT at 88.3 FM for their 25-min segment! Interviews will be available online about a week later.

The above photos were taken and are copyrighted by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.

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