Phoenix Challenge Students Facing Challenges During Global Pandemic Find Ways to Complete Projects

Broken presses, chipped doctor blades, incorrect ink, timelines and deadlines, and memorizing presentations.

For more than a decade, the Phoenix Challenge collegiate competitors have seen their fair share of roadblocks, mistakes and stress, but this year’s challenge had the added backdrop of a global pandemic.

While speaking to the student leaders, advisors and judges of this year’s Phoenix Challenge College Competition, a picture of ingenuity, teamwork and remarkable problem solving began to take shape. The challenge may have stayed the same—rebranding a small business through the use of flexographic technology—but the world was rapidly changing.

The 2020 Phoenix Challenge College Competition team from California Polytechnic State University

In January, a bevy of teams were raring to prove their skills and creativity, but due to circumstances out of their control, many had to drop out of the competition. By March, three schools—California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) and University of Wisconsin-Stout (Stout)—remained. Not only did the teams succeed in their completion of the challenge, they exceeded expectations. Bettylyn Krafft, head of the Phoenix Challenge Foundation, said this year’s challenge “was far better than anything we’ve ever done.”

Pushing Through

In early March, Dr. Malcom Keif, faculty advisor for Cal Poly’s team, wondered if “…the competition was still going to happen at all.” Universities and colleges throughout the country were shutting down, sending students home for long spring breaks that extended well past their original end date. Academic buildings were shuttered. Dorm rooms were left with posters still tacked to their walls. The Phoenix Challenge, an event predicated on hands-on work, was facing the biggest challenge in its 12-year run: a world where being hands-on was dangerous.

Cal Poly team member Amber Huang makes some last-minute adjustments to a rotary die before the final gift box production run.
Photo courtesy of California Polytechnic State University

As teams began to drop out, others were having to find new ways to work around not only school closures, but also their small business clients facing new and brutal economic pressure. Caitlin Royston, the leader of the Cal Poly team, remarked of the new challenges of working with their client, Tails Pet Boutique, stating, “Many of their employees had to head home for the shelter-in-place order, but Tails itself was still operating, which means a heavier workload for the two owners.”

CPCC felt similar difficulties working with its client, Whims Beneath my Wings, a bath bomb business which faced a new struggle with maintaining clients: “Most of their loyal customers aren’t purchasing as much as they used to, due to job cuts and lack of income,” the team explained. Finally, Stout faced communication struggles with its client, Blaeser Farms: “Communication with our client and the team certainly went down once we left campus.” While the industry worked to meet new demands for packaging and printed materials, the competition’s students were learning the difficulties of communication, changing demands and financial struggles.

The 2020 Phoenix Challenge College Competition team from University of Wisconsin-Stout

Despite finishing their busy semesters online with teammates scattered across the country, the students still found a way to create beautiful and useful products for their clients. A through line across each of these schools was their dedication to teamwork and time management with the added benefit of industry assistance. CPCC team leader Sabrina Baez said, “The greatest thing I’ve learned through this project is time management. My Momma has always told me to ‘Work first and play second,’ which were some of the words of wisdom that helped me and the team finish strong.”