International innovation: Boundaryless’s big solutions to big problems

This month, four teams of students from two universities sat anxiously awaiting their turn to present in the International Pavilion to a panel of faculty, staff, students and some 40 participants from Mexico and the US, including representatives from the US Department of State who were watching the session via Zoom.

This was the final phase of The Big IDEA/La Gran IDEA and it was a moment over a year and a half in the making.

The Big IDEA was funded by a grant from the 100,000 Strong in the Americas through the nonprofit Partners of the Americas and was originally awarded in early 2021–at the height of the pandemic. The program was designed to bring students from NAU and the University of Sonora (UNISON) together to come up with “big idea” solutions related to food security and financial inclusion. While it was originally slated for fall 2021 and had to be postponed due to the pandemic, spirits stayed high and students were resilient.

Students held virtual workshops with participating faculty from NAU and UNISON throughout January and February, then in February, NAU students traveled to Hermosillo, Mexico to begin conceptualizing their big ideas. During this visit, NAU and UNISON students were broken into teams and each group began working together on their solutions to the problems regarding food insecurity and financial access in the Sonora-Arizona region. They visited small villages surrounding Hermosillo, making friends and connections and gaining a deeper understanding of challenges related to food insecurity and financial access.

Then, last week, NAU hosted students, faculty and staff from the University of Sonora on campus. During this final phase, NAU and UNISON students wasted no time in jumping into their work, picking up right where they left off the last time the two groups met in Hermosillo, Mexico. Throughout this week, the groups are engaged in work sessions at the Boundaryless Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center in the University Union.

Students, staff, and faculty broke up the long days (8 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and workshops with excursions to local businesses like Moonshot at NACET, hikes and sightseeing, dinners at local restaurants, and community service at Flagstaff Family Food Center.

Students explored hundreds of ideas and experienced the exhausting and exhilarating design process. In the end, each team presented their prototypes and unique solutions–a new board game that teaches nutrition, customized TikTok gifts that benefit indigenous communities, educational online courses that teach indigenous artisans how to sell online and an “out-of-the-box” educational nutrition kit.

On an institutional level, NAU and UNISON rekindled a relationship that the pandemic had paused. NAU students met la Rectora María Rita Plancarte Martínez on their visit to Hermosillo and UNISON students got to meet President Cruz Rivera during their visit to the Flagstaff Mountain campus. Faculty pairs from NAU and UNISON shared research backgrounds and forged friendships. NAU and UNISON’s international education representatives connected and drafted an MOU to explore potential exchange and education abroad opportunities.

As the teams concluded their final presentations and wrapped up a week of hard work creating solutions and strengthening friendships and institutional ties there was a sense that boundaries had been pushed, and crossed. This was the goal of The Big IDEA/La Gran IDEA and it remains the goal of the Boundaryless Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center. It is our hope that all students, faculty and staff can grow more innovative and entrepreneurial and in the process, cross borders–international as well as intellectual and within our campus community.

NAU Communications