Imagine you want to create an accessible, virtual, hands-on science education program that can be accessed and worked on from home, in the classroom, or even in the hospital. This program would use low-cost, easy-to-find materials to make experiments. It may seem a lofty ambition, but it proved to be solid – and was chosen last week as winner of this year’s Western competition for the World’s Challenge Challenge.
“The idea for Project Lightbulb came about last summer,” said Colette Benko, a student at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
“I had always been interested in bringing science education into a more accessible format for youth in the hospital,” says Benko, who had her own personal experience of being in hospital at a young age and was looking for more learning stimulation during her time there. “When COVID-19 hit, I realized how even more youth could benefit from a more accessible, virtual STEM education. From there the idea just grew.”
She quickly realized she would need more help, and teamed up with science students Geoffrey Wong, Tara Moore and Kayleigh Gray, who she met in a biology seminar course that, as part of the community engaged learning component of the course, matched students to partner organizations.
This year, nine teams made up of two to four students presented innovative projects – some, like Project Lightbulb, already at various stages of implementation — to compete in the World’s Challenge Challenge, a pitch contest that invites student teams to present solutions to world problems. Project Lightbulb uses low-cost and easy-to-find materials to make their experiments and delivers them in two formats built for teachers and students.
This year’s runner-up was UHealth, a program providing urinalysis kits for efficient diagnosis of certain diseases and offering treatments in developing countries. Team members were health sciences students Lian Buwadi, Denait Haile, Sally Hammad and Brinda Patel.
Third place went to Volt Transportation, which addresses greenhouse gas emissions through an all-electric short-haul delivery service. Team members were engineering students Liam Israels, Ethan Milroy and Katherine O’Hare, and social science student Noah Dreyfuss.
Western has held the World’s Challenge Challenge for the past seven years, with about 20 teams competing annually and presenting their ideas to make the world a better place by addressing a global issue and pitching their solution to a panel of academic and community leaders. Winning team members each receive $1,000 and have the opportunity to compete in the World’s Challenge Challenge Global Final, hosted by Western, for a top team prize of $30,000.
“The challenge came about in 2013, when we were trying to think of ways to engage students in conversations around the importance of internationalization,” said Lise Laporte, senior director of Western International. “Out of those discussions was born the idea of a competition. Ideally, we were looking to create space for students from different academic backgrounds to come together to look at issues that are important in a global context and address them from an interdisciplinary perspective.”
The competition has been well received by the Western community, Laporte said. “We have a great number of judges and supporters and people that follow the competition along with our students. It’s something we’re very proud of.”
The success of the internal competition motivated the Challenge organizers to grow the program and invite other institutions around the world to hold their own internal competitions and send their winning teams to a global competition at Western. This year’s Global Final will take place virtually from June 7 to 10, with up to 40 teams from around the world competing for more than $50,000 in prize money.
This year’s Global Final will also include winning teams from last year who weren’t able to compete in 2020 due to the cancellation of the Global Final because of the pandemic.
Last year’s winning team from Western, Teyab for Change, will join Project Lightbulb at this year’s Global Final competition. Led by health sciences students Samah Osman, Amalka De Silva and Dwayne Francis, their project uses cultural clothing to address cholera outbreaks in low-income countries.
“Opening the program up to our partners around the world has been an incredible experience for the student participants to make connections with other like-minded people committed to sustainability and global issues,” said Laporte. “It has also provided another opportunity for Western to engage with our current partners and to establish new partnerships, as well.”