A team focused on removing microplastics from the world’s oceans walked away with the top prize at Northern Arizona University’s inaugural Jacks Big IDEA event on Sunday.
The event, which boundaryless@NAU sponsored, is part of the international Invent for the Planet out of Texas A&M. It was a 48-hour problem-solve-a-thon that took place Feb. 14-16 and allowed interdisciplinary student teams to take on a global problem and present a well-researched, well-argued potential solution. The top three NAU teams won money to continue their research and development.
The first-place team, Skroow Trash, also will participate in the global competition, which allows them to present their solutions with teams from throughout the world.
Curtis Smith, the boundaryless@NAU director, said the event was a success, with students from every college and every grade level participating.
“The teams accomplished in one weekend what some student groups spend an entire semester doing, and they did it to a very high level at that,” he said. “What stood out to me most was how hard they worked and how dedicated they were to the challenge they were solving. They were working and sleeping in shifts—they really put everything into it. It was inspiring.”
Skroow Trash, comprised of Kaylee Vigil, Owen Murphy, Reilley Luedde, Olivia Lynn, Walker Richard and Stephen Pagano, looked at the hundreds of tons of microplastics that contaminate the ocean every year. It’s a problem because of the harmful effects on marine life, they said, but it affects humans too. People consume on average a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.
Their solution was a cargo ship ballast system with filters made out of organic material. When docked, the cargo ships would take on polluted water and during the ship’s transit the system would filter microplastics from the ballast water and, upon docking at its destination, the cargo ship would release the filtered ballast water. The process would be repeated as the cargo ship took on new ballast water for its return trip, and the filtered microplastic particles would be stored in a shipping container and disposed of elsewhere. The student team estimated this system could filter out 135 million tons of microplastics from the ocean based on current cargo shipping capacity.
Their plan included marketing the product on a couple of points: First, it would be less expensive than the current systems available, and it would allow shipping companies to ship filtered plastics to more countries.
Pagano, a junior creative media and film major from Hawai’i, was curious about the event, so he signed up. He said the experience was well worth it, though it felt like finals week crammed into a weekend. But he’d seen this problem firsthand and wanted a chance to explore possible solutions.
“Growing up by the ocean, I have always been aware of the dangers that plastic has had on the ocean environment,” Pagano said. “This seemed like a problem that hit close to home, and I wanted to see what me and my team could come up with to solve it.”
Vigil, a second-year student from Los Angeles studying biomedical sciences, came into the event without much knowledge of the severity of plastics in the ocean, but she was interested in learning more, so she joined this group. She had a great time and came away feeling more knowledgeable and empowered to continue such research.
“I participated to gain some insight into how I might research something but also to learn how to collaboratively work on those skills,” she said. “Knowing how to work with a team is so important, and I figured this was a great opportunity to work on those skills.”
Other teams tackled a variety of issues, including composting, bringing electricity to developing parts of the world and tracking infectious disease symptoms so potential outbreaks can be identified and mitigated. They made a short video promoting their projects, then presented and took questions from the judges.
The judges were Cline Library Dean Cynthia Childrey; Interim Dean John Georgas of the College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences; Graduate College Dean Maribeth Watwood; T. Paul Thomas, director of the Northern Arizona Center for Non-Profit Entrepreneurship and assistant professor of practice in the Franke College of Business; José Diaz Aquino, assistant director of NAU Career Development; School of Art senior lecturer David Van Ness; J. Michael Cruz, director of operations at NACA (Native American for Community Action); and Flagstaff attorney Julie Woodward.
It was an exciting weekend for the judges too, though they got a little more sleep. In addition to the solutions students came up with in 48 hours, Diaz Aquino was impressed by how quickly the teams bonded and formed connections that lasted beyond the weekend. He also highlighted the event’s interdisciplinary nature; in today’s workforce, employees need to think outside of their field and get new perspectives on issues.
“Fostering the spirit of innovation and creation on the NAU campus is important,” he said. “Our students need opportunities to take what they are being exposed to in class and apply that learning to solve real-world problems.”
Childrey enjoyed both seeing the creative solutions teams employed and seeing the library’s many assets, including the Maker Lab, NAU’s 3-D printing facility, and the Learning Studio, put to good use during the competition. The trophies were even printed in the Maker Lab.
“I was especially impressed with the interdisciplinary teams—students who were majoring in English, engineering, business, chemistry and so on working together to contribute their ideas and expertise to solve major world problems,” she said. “I hope the participants will continue to pursue their innovative solutions and continue to grow their problem-solving skills.”
As the NAU students presented their ideas, teams from other universities around the world watched. These teams from universities in Southeast Asia, Brazil, Canada, Europe and throughout the United States had been tackling similar problems throughout the weekend, and the NAU teams watched their presentations via videoconference as well.
“Jacks Big IDEA was a great opportunity for our students to consider global issues, collaborate with others and brainstorm innovative solutions,” said Tom Cheng, NAU’s entrepreneur-in-residence and founder of boundaryless@NAU. “It is exciting to see the effort and energy the teams put into their projects, and we look forward to continuing this program in future semesters.”
First runner-up: Team PandemX—Klarissa Arreola, Gabriel Shepard, Maria Rodriguez, Zoë Soto and Madelyn Lohkamp
They suggested creating an app connected to a smart bracelet that would track people’s biometrics, particular body temperature—fever is a critical indicator of the presence of infectious disease—and help doctors treat patients more quickly but also alert global health officials about the possibility of an epidemic in a region. Watch their video.
Second runner-up: Shock the World—Anthony Kiefer, Xulia Suero, Max Shipman*, Joriah Gorden and Vitaliy Kolontayev
They used recyclables, trash and other easy-to-access materials to create a gravity generator that can store power and planned to build solar panels out of recycled materials, then, in the artificial wind tunnels that solar farms create, erect windmills to capture as much energy as a possible, which can then be used to organically power small villages. Watch their video.
Team B.A.G.H.: Brian Hamilton, Gavin Nelson, Alesha Jimmie and Hannah Larreau
They conceived of a system that would encourage composting by targeting consumers, composters and farmers, providing education and incentives so all three groups would increase their composting and worldwide decrease the $1 trillion in wasted food annually. Watch their video.
Teach Coach: Melissa Lundberg, Adriana Weise*, Robert Howe, Henrikas Alisauskas
They came up with the idea for Ari, an AI travel assistant to help move travelers seamlessly through international travel, helping to avoid missed flights, lost luggage and missing documents, thus reducing stress for travelers and lost revenue for airlines. Watch their video.
United Parenting Association: Andrew Bergstein, Haley Kayo, Clarissa Carr*
They suggested the creation of a nonprofit to encourage and educate would-be parents about the benefits of having children, incentivizing a higher birth rate in countries where it has declined and developing an app to help parents get information, build community and exchange child care. Watch their video.
*Honors College students
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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