Steve Drummond

It's that time of year again! Power up your smartphones and build your pillow forts, because we're about to open NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

From quarantining in dorms to staring at the screen in online classes — it was a wild year to be a college student. And, it turns out, it was a good year for us to welcome college students for the first time to the NPR Student Podcast Challenge.

Today we're announcing our favorites! From podcasts submitted from college students across the country, we've narrowed the list down to 10 finalists. You can read and listen to the full list here.

Milo Greer's postcard had us emoji-face crying, too.
Courtesy of Melissa Greer

A few weeks ago,

It's our job to report on the big changes happening as millions of students are out of school and learning at home or online. We know for every child, that experience is different:

Summer camp is canceled. The school year ended weeks early. No one knows what fall is going to be like. "Virtual" graduation ... zoom classes. A lot of the things that were "normal" have changed. Face it, your kids are dealing with a lot these days.

What happened to a circus elephant in the small East Tennessee town of Erwin a century ago, and what are the people there today doing about it?

And what do a group of middle school girls from the Bronx have to say about the stigma that surrounds talking about periods?

We asked teachers and students to put on their headphones and turn their ideas into sound for our first-ever NPR Student Podcast Challenge — and boy, did they. We got nearly 5,700 entries, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Podcasts that explored climate change. Podcasts about gun control and mental health. About great books and mythology. Hedgehogs and history.

Teachers and their students at 1,580 schools participated: all told, roughly 25,000 students nationwide.

Crayons, of course. Scented markers. Colored pencils, presharpened. And coloring books by the jillions.

Why do people like coloring so much? For grown-ups, I can totally get the nostalgia — and the simple pleasure of creating something.

But here at NPR Ed, we're all about kids and learning. And so, as parents head to the store this summer with their back-to-school lists, we thought this question was worth a serious look:

Paper ... or glass?

Advances in laptops and technology are pushing screens into schools like never before. So what does this drive toward digital classrooms mean for that oldest and simplest of touch screens: a plain old sheet of paper?

It may seem a wasteful and obsolete technology, ready to follow the slate chalkboard and the ditto machine into the Smithsonian, or a flat, white invitation to creativity, just waiting for some learning magic to happen.

It's a perennial debate in American education: Do kids learn best when they're sitting in rows at their desks? Or moving around, exploring on their own?

Back in the 1960s and '70s, that debate led to a brand new school design: Small classrooms were out. Wide-open spaces were in. The Open Education movement was born.

Across the U.S., schools were designed and built along these new ideas, with a new approach to the learning that would take place inside them.