Innovation Challenges: STEM Talent Takes Action
By Robert Birchard, NYAS Staff
For more than a decade the Academy has worked with partners in industry, academia and government to identify solutions to every day challenges through its innovation challenges. “These challenges provide a platform for people to hone their STEM skills on a level playing field — no lab, credentials or financial commitment required — and apply them in an interdisciplinary, real world environment,” explains Chenelle Bonavito Martinez, MS, Vice President, STEM Talent Programs.
Challenges are not just about working on a solution to a problem. They also provide an opportunity for students to practice time and project management, as well as communication and presentation skills. In one such challenge, a team of five students from The Junior Academy in five different countries devised a solution to lessen the impact of wildfires. “Not only do [wildfires] destroy homes, they also halt local economies, raze whole habitats, injure and kill many, send carcinogens into the air, and so much more,” says Matt Friedman, 16, United States, a member of the winning Wildfire team. “Understanding the factors related to real-world problems can help us solve them.”
The team looked at how to best counter the wildfire embers and maintain adequate water supply in pumping stations without electricity. In addition to the scientific and engineering questions, the group also grappled with questions of cost-effectiveness and how to implement their solution in already existing communities. “I think it is really easy to fall into the trap of putting science into neat little boxes where each idea or development belongs in its own discipline,” says Wildfire team member Isabelle Robertson, 18, New Zealand. “But the real world isn’t like that and global problems require us to use collaborative approaches and tie aspects of different disciplines into one solution.”
Rubi Lopez, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education and Bianka Martinez, Technological Institute of Morelia were completing their undergraduate degrees, when they won the Pepsico Healthy Snack Challenge, devising a healthy snack that would appeal to children. Their solution required not just extensive nutrition research, but also thorough market research.
“My experience with this challenge expanded my vision of the food industry and focused my attention on creating bigger impact in the world,” says Martinez, a biochemical engineer who recently finished a Master’s degree in Food Technology and Innovation at the Polytechnic School of Design in Milan, Italy. “The best way to solve worldwide problems is by applying scientific skills combined with creative and design skills. Science lays the foundations, the procedures and the means to solve problems, while the design thinking helps us create innovative and unique solutions by focusing on people.”
“Scientific skills are like a yellow brick road that lead you to the truth. You don’t know if Oz is near or far, but you know you’re on the right path,” echoes Lopez an international business major. “I participated in this challenge despite it not being directly related to my major. I thought my skills could be useful and that this challenge offered the opportunity to learn new things. It’s not necessary to have a science degree to generate solutions to real problems, but critical thinking and constant curiosity are always necessary to make a positive change.”
“The tools and techniques of science helps people make breakthrough discoveries in understanding phenomena,” says Bhavna Mehra, General Manager, Infosys Science Foundation. “Therefore science and its pursuers and practitioners have the responsibility, along with the vision, to solve these problems.”
This belief in the responsibilities of a scientist led to the development of the Infosys Science Foundation Nutrition Challenge. Originally envisioned as a way to raise awareness about the number of deaths attributed to malnutrition in children under the age of five, the challenge also gave participants a platform to develop. “The skills of observing, experimenting, data collection and applying a concept in a real-world scenario were all tested as the solvers worked on the nutrition challenge,” explains Mehra. The top two teams — team Podible and team Nutri-APP — came up with their own hypotheses, collected data and applied the results to come up with executable plans to tackle malnutrition.” Mehra concludes, “Cultivating an understanding and practice of scientific thinking in all fields will go a long way in helping solve social, economic and civic issues.”