Innovation, Not "Thought", Leaders

creative-idea

Imagine having a thought and then actually doing something about it. In STEM professions, while being a ‘thought-leader’ and having those ‘aha moments’ are essential to a successful career, developing the skills and the experience to turn these thoughts into real solutions is the clincher. These are the skills that universities are concentrating more on, and ones that we (the College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) student societies) had in mind when designing the ANU Innovation Challenge.

The Challenge was a 24-hour event which took place over the 16th and 17th of September 2016. Teams of ANU and local school students tackled one of three global challenges. The first was a humanitarian design challenge, posed by Engineers Without Borders, and set in a village in India. The second was a mental health technology challenge set by Batyr. The third, and possibly most challenging, was to ‘do something interesting with a big data set’. Workshops from our industry sponsors on idea generation, customer validation, requirements analysis, the design process and creating a perfect pitch, got participants up and running. Academics from the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the Research School of Physics and Engineering, along with student mentors, provided support for the whole event, and each team presented their innovative solution to their particular challenge in a three-minute pitch at end the event.

The biggest challenge was, however, not one of the three set challenges, but the organisation of the event itself. Eight different societies collaborated and were involved in the planning. It began six months ago, at the place where all CECS initiatives are born – the Coffee Grounds. The Engineering Students Association (ESA), Computer Science Students Association (CSSA), and Fifty50 set up a committee with the ANU Solar Car Association (ASCA), Robogals and Engineers Without Borders (EWB). This later grew to include the Science Society and the Cross-Disciplinary Students Association (XSA).

Except for the XSA, we are all STEM societies. In a way, we are a bit like siblings. We have a lot in common, but have probably ignored each other more than we should have over the years. There is that friendly sibling rivalry between the ESA and CSSA in our regular dodgeball events (engineers are leading 2-1) and at our STEM family BBQs that start each academic year. Our growing family ties led us to the creation of this event, one which we think our parents would be proud of!

Liaising with local schools, generating industry and ANU support, navigating ANU contracts, and figuring out how to look after young people for 24 hours were just a few of the challenges. We did, however, create a risk assessment matrix that I have no doubt is the most comprehensive matrix that Functions on Campus has ever received.

The most satisfying part of the event was seeing the diversity of students who we attracted to the event. In terms of disciplines, 25% of ANU participants were from the School of Engineering, 25% from the School of Computer Science, 25% from the College of Business and Economics, and the remaining students came from across the remaining Colleges. There was also a great balance of international and domestic students, as well as of genders, we just wish we had collected statistics on these! We wanted the challenges to be as open as possible, and this diversity of backgrounds and interests certainly led to a diversity of solutions. We saw students with ideas from phone applications to exchange programs, and everything between.

The winning ANU team was Chaminnovation, which included Matthew Brown, James Parker, Logan Davis, Reilly Francis, and Chamin Hewa Koneputugodage. They created a website that allows you to search and compare books based on different metrics, including age, emotional positivity, and genre.

The winning high school team was ‘Merici Gals’, who designed a water filter for the Indian village. Their solution was the definition of appropriate technology, and their pitch was really convincing. We hope their experience inspires them and other students, especially young women, to get involved in STEM, or at the very least leave school with an increased sense of curiosity about the world and the confidence to have a role in shaping it.

We are nominated for the ‘Best Collaborative Event’ at the 2016 ANUSA Clubs and Societies Awards in October, and are quietly (or in my case not-so-quietly) confident we will take it out! This sort of event is so important for a collaborative culture within the ANU, and enabling students to feel empowered to go out and tackle significant global problems. For high school students, what better way to experience the ANU? And what better way for us to market ourselves to them and their peers as a leading university? We hope this will be the first of many Challenges, that support for initiatives like this from the ANU will grow, and that ANU will continue to produce innovation-leaders.

In true after-event style, we would like to thank our sponsors, the Australian Radio and Communications Industry Association, Ernst and Young, Innovations ACT, the CBR Innovation Network, ActewAGL, GHD, Inspiring Australia ACT, and AECOM. We would also like to thank the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the Research School of Physics for their ongoing support, and all the academics who helped us during the event.