École Polytechnique hosts the U7+ Student Challenge
École Polytechnique hosted the final of the U7+ Student Challenge competition on its campus on June 13-14, 2022. Revolving around the challenge of Addressing the UN's Sustainable Development Goals through Technology and Pluridisciplinarity, the competition challenged students to work in teams to tackle specific local challenges linked to sustainability. The teams from participating U7+ Alliance member universities - Ashesi University, University of Ottawa, Northwestern University, and l’X - met at École Polytechnique for the final round to pitch their projects to the jury. The event also offered participants the opportunity to exchange with students from other countries on the development of alternative solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
The importance of interdisciplinarity
The commitment to interdisciplinary research and learning, bearing particular attention to creating new bridges between STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), life sciences, social sciences, and humanities, is part of the guiding principles of the U7+ Alliance.
Reflecting the importance École Polytechnique grants to multidisciplinarity in its degree programs and the School’s advocacy for interdisciplinarity in Research, U7+ commissioned École Polytechnique to champion a working group invested in exploring how to further advance the development of core technological competencies across disciplines, and educate students to leverage technology for social good.
Rallying academics from universities across Europe, North America, and Africa, and chaired by Thierry Rayna, Professor of Innovation Management at École Polytechnique and Chair of Technology for Change, and Dr Pilar Acosta, Assistant Professor at l’X, the group aims to develop new approaches to foster interdisciplinary competencies. The group designed the U7+ Student Challenge to incite students to collaborate within a multidisciplinary team to propose a solution for local real-life issues linked to one or several SDGs. The conviction that universities are to play a central role in tackling environmental and social issues is another principle of the U7+ Alliance.
“How can Higher Education ensure students develop the necessary skills to produce meaningful technologies and innovation? – This is the key question we try to tackle within the U7+ Alliance working group École Polytechnique is leading”, explains Thierry Rayna. “The goal of the international challenge was to lead students to analyze local challenges and learn how to find within their institutions and the U7+ network the skills that are needed to resolve these challenges. Doing so, they train to draw on different interconnected disciplines and expertise to tackle an issue.”
To participate in the Student Challenge, each team had to analyze a local issue linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and elaborate an alternative solution framed in the concept of sustainability (economic-social-environmental). Each project had to include a technological component, involve community stakeholders, and demonstrate a multidisciplinary approach.
The Student Challenge’s final: Pitch of the projects to the jury
The teams had focused on challenges reaching from food security to illegal gold mining. As the student pitched their projects to the jury, they had to demonstrate their ability to communicate their alternative solution to relevant actors effectively.
Ashesi University's student team focused on illegal mining in Ghana. Besides the large-scale sector, Ghana's gold mining industry comprises an artisanal and small-scale mining sector, which is still insufficiently regulated. Illegal mining practices cause substantial damage to the environment, local communities, and the economy. Having investigated the complex interplay between stakeholders that firmly hold illegal mining in place, the team identified starting points to change the current situation.
Northwestern University’s team further developed the student-led Project MED (Medicine, Exposure, Development), which matches Northwestern students as mentors with underserved high school students in Chicago, exposing them to the breadth of opportunities in the healthcare field. They developed the MEDLaunch database to address the current inaccessibility of healthcare opportunities available to high school students in Chicago and Evanston.
École Polytechnique's student team and the University of Ottowa's team worked on optimizing a root cellar that Deep Roots Food Hub had built. This non-profit organization aims to create a sustainable, local food system in West Carleton, Canada, and the community root cellar provides storage space for local, small-scale farmers. The teams examined the construction methodology and the options for control & off-grid power to propose process improvements to the system functionality. Using design calculations and proof-of-concept experiments, they investigated how to integrate the subsystem considering seasonal fluctuations better in the cooling system. In addition, they also looked into operations logistics from a human-centered design.
In addition, a student from another U7+ member institution, Osaka University, was part of the team from the University of Ottawa. Jorge Enrique Ascencio Damian brought additional expertise to the project group and enhanced the team’s diversity further. An example to draw on further!
Composed of academics and administrators from U7+ member universities, the jury declared Northwestern University’s team the winner and attributed the second price to Ashesi University’s team.
During their visit on campus, the students were greeted by Éric Labaye, president of École Polytechnique and Institut Polytechnique de Paris, enjoyed a Masterclass on Technology and SDGs given by professor Thierry Rayna. They discovered the Drahi-X Novation Center’s and its Fablab, and also met with Shayan Kahn, École Polytechnique Alumnus and Chair of the U7+ Student & Alumni Network, who introduced them to the U7+ Alliance’s U7+ Student & Alumni network.
About the U7+ Alliance of World Universities
Rallying university presidents from around the world, the international U7+ Alliance aims to structure and advance the role of universities as global actors across the multilateral agenda. Since 2019, the university presidents and leadership members of U7+ meet annually to establish a common agenda for coordinated actions. Together, U7+ university presidents review their universities’ unique civic and social responsibilities and pledge to address the world’s most pressing challenges at local, regional, and global levels.
Testifying the importance U7+ attaches to an intergenerational dialogue on global issues, the Alliance also organizes a student forum. Bringing student delegates from member universities together, the U7+ student forum encourages them to exchange on critical matters such as diversity and inclusion, environmental issues, digital transformation, or mental health, and discuss how the Alliance’s commitments can translate into concrete actions across the institutions. The student delegates’ recommendations subsequently feed into the U7+ Alliance Presidents’ meetings.