How to Pull Students Into ‘Global Challenges’ Research

Many universities are refocusing their research on “grand challenges” or “wicked problems,” including poverty, climate change, or emerging infectious diseases, to try to make a global impact. One question not often discussed, though, is how to involve students.

Paul Hudnut, director of the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise degree program at Colorado State University’s business school, says that he and his colleagues spotted few similar programs when they founded the program, in 2007. “It felt pretty lonely out there,” he said.

At the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Mr. Hudnut and the leaders of similar student-based programs discussed the lessons they have learned in a session titled “More Than a Field Trip: Developing Student Leaders to Address Global Challenges.”

The emphasis of the student programs is often practical research that finds solutions to particular problems in developing countries: childbirth kits to improve sanitation and reduce mortality; breast-milk filters to prevent mothers from passing on HIV to their babies; gutter systems for school roofs to collect rainwater for hand-washing and toilets. The goal, Mr. Hudnut said, is “prototypes, not papers.”

Just coming up with a product is not enough. To avoid the dead ends that have plagued many projects intended to help the developing world, students learn how to get user feedback, improve their inventions, and distribute them. While many engineering schools may have designed solar lanterns that provide light at night with solar energy collected during the day, users need to be able to afford those lanterns and be able to fix or maintain them in the field, said Mr. Hudnut. And without a proper system of distribution and payment, no lantern will ever find its way out to the rural villages.

Students need more than science and engineering expertise, they need to look at the “sustainability of a solution,” said Julian D. Marshall, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Students do not always focus on what might be considered products, but on simple ways to improve the lives of rural villagers or slum dwellers. In an interview after the AAAS meeting, Mr. Marshall spoke about some of the student projects started at his institution that are farthest along. One is a drip-irrigation system for farmers in India that consists of a hose with holes that plugs into a bucket. While no one could get a patent on it, if used properly, the system makes more efficient use of what can be expensive water and improves crop yield. The student who is a champion of the system has planned rent-to-own distribution that will try to overcome farmers’ lack of cash.

The student designed the irrigation system in a program started in 2007 by Mr. Marshall and his colleagues, the Acara challenge, which now has a dozen partners in India, Mexico, and the United States and moves students through three phases, depending on their interests. In the first stage, students from a variety of disciplines meet in a formal course and learn the basics of designing products that meet societal needs: design thinking, getting the voice of the user into the design process, and business models that might support such products. The U.S.- and Mexico-based students also start working with students in India, using Skype, text messaging, Google documents, and all of the usual social media. (This year there are so many Indian students that there are some all-Indian teams as well.)

In the second stage, a one-credit course, the students who want to continue in research have to find a problem to work on and then design a solution. To help the students along, the professors use a deceptively simple series of questions: “What is the problem you are trying to solve? Why do you think it is a problem? What is your solution? Why will your solution work? How will you sustain that solution?”

The students’ solutions are ranked by judges who function like venture capitalists deciding whether or not to invest in a business. The judges look at the solution, the students’ description of the intended market, and the business model they suggest for reaching that market. Despite the businesslike approach, the students can propose either a nonprofit or a for-profit model for the organization that will take their solution to market.

Recent winners have included a proposal to help street vendors in Delhi to serve food that doesn’t make their customers sick and another proposal to turn rotting food into bio-gas for cooking fuel. In the final phase of the challenge, students who are committed to taking their idea to market can attend a summer institute in India.

At Colorado State, Mr. Hudnut urged other universities interested in designing such student-based programs to apply the slogan of “bake in, not bolt on.” That is, instead of hiring outsiders to come in to start such programs, he told universities to find existing tenure-track faculty who were interested in the idea.

Mr. Marshall warned professors interested in starting such programs that they are a “ton of work,” but described his own excitement at watching students learn and apply practical skills. “Students can come up with solutions, and they can come up with solutions that work,” he said.

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