Master innovators: Announcing the 2020 Acara Challenge winners
All it takes is the swipe of a screen, the turn of a page, or the press of a button to know we’re living in unprecedented times. A global pandemic has turned our world upside-down in myriad ways, which means that if there’s one thing this difficult time asks of us, it’s to find new ways to do things. To innovate.
That spirit was on full display last evening as student teams from across the University of Minnesota competed in the Acara Challenge, which asks students to answer one question: What’s your big idea to change the world? Proposals that won the night included a job connection platform for Somalian young adults, a grief and job loss fellowship, and a project that bolsters multilingualism by increasing the accessibility of books printed in home languages.
This year, the Acara Challenge didn’t just empower innovation. It embodied it. For the first time in the Challenge’s 10-year history, the entire competition was held virtually. Over the course of an hour, over 200 students, alumni, faculty, and community members heard pitches from student teams and voted on crowd favorites from a list of 12 finalists.
The online format was a new frontier, but the show – which would otherwise have been cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19-related concerns – had to go on. “Now more than ever, we need to support the changemakers developing solutions to address social and environmental challenges,” says IonE Events Manager Kimberly Long. “The overall decision to still host the Acara Challenge was as much about having the students’ work recognized as it was about inspiring and bringing together our community around the world during this time of uncertainty and isolation.”
And inspire it did. ShaqoSearch, pitched by Morgan Kerfeld of the Carlson School of Management, was a hit for both the judges and the audience, claiming the undergraduate division’s gold prize and crowd favorite award. The project partners with Alight to match young adults to employers in Kismayo, Somalia. Two undergrad teams took home silver medals: the Cup Deposit Project, a reusable cup system combating single-use coffee cup waste at the U of M proposed by Lauren Anderson of the College of Liberal Arts; and Furaharakati (Joy + Movement), an exercise program that aims to improve joint pain and social engagement among Ugandan adults.
Furaharakati’s team includes Allison Berry of the College of Biological Sciences, Anna Solfest of the College of Education and Human Development, and Allie Trask of the School of Nursing. Solfest and Trask developed the idea for the project in a Grand Challenges Course taught by IonE’s Megan Voorhees, Fred Rose, and Cheryl Robertson. “We’re so excited to move forward and help older adults feel healthy and be healthy,” said the team as it accepted the award.
Last but not least for the undergraduate division: Loring Collective took home bronze! The Collective empowers local queer creatives through the creation of safe spaces in which to celebrate, network, and showcase work across mediums. The team includes Tony Burton of CLA, Enzo Mazumdar Stanger of CLA, Melissa Riepe of CEHD, Izzy Voigt of CFANS, and community partner Brady Bunkelman.
LibroMío won the audience’s heart and took home the crowd favorite award for the graduate division. The program, pitched by Ph.D. second language education student Margret Buchannon, supports multilingual families and promotes reading in community through increased access to books written in home languages. Claiming the gold was the Grief and Job Loss CCAPS Fellowship, pitched by integrated behavioral health Master’s student Alejandra Rodriguez Wheelock.
“I have no words for – for you and all the help I’ve gotten. It really all started with a crazy dream I had,” Rodriguez Wheelock expressed as she accepted her award. “If it had not been for the coaches and all the support, this would not have happened. I hope I can truly help make the Twin Cities the cities we want for all of us, especially in these hard times where unemployment will skyrocket and we will see an increase in mental health needs.”
Rounding out the graduate division were Disciple Science, winner of the silver medal, and Tubivuge, which took home bronze. The Disciple Science team includes the Humphrey School’s Matt Gill and community partners Dr. Dale Gentry and Dr. Joel Jueckstock, and the project aims to inspire Christians to act on behalf of the Earth. Tubivuge, pitched by Aimee Carlson of the Humphrey School, is a podcast that gives voice to women and girls and tackles pressing issues facing the Kiziba Refugee Camp community.
Winning projects were awarded up to $5,000 to pilot their programs, and those selected as crowd favorites received $500 cash prizes. Acara hopes the teams will use the resources to continue innovating far into the future.
As for the next 10 years of the Acara Challenge? The team hopes to be back cheering on its changemakers in person. No matter the medium, though, words from Rodriguez Wheelock ring true: “I promise everyone, I will not let you down.”