impact200 Sustainability Challenge creates "bright spots"

Bicentennial initiative helps students turn innovative ideas into projects for a better future

Making the planet more sustainable is a top priority for students and researchers across McGill’s campuses.

So it’s no coincidence that a centrepiece of the University’s bicentennial celebrations is a challenge that aims to turn students’ ideas into “bright spots”—innovative projects with real-world impact.

The impact200 Student Sustainability Challenge began in the summer of 2020 with the goal of uniting like-minded individuals in the McGill community who are passionate about addressing sustainability issues.

Teams of students and recent graduates worked together on projects, with McGill alumni and employees as mentors. Each project aims to tackle a local or global sustainability challenge, inspired by the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Those goals cover issues from climate action to ending hunger to promoting health and well-being.

From 44 proposals submitted at the outset, a judging panel last spring narrowed the field to 10 finalist teams. Each team got $5,000 and expert mentors to help develop a proof-of-concept over the summer. The students pitched their projects to judges in late November.

Connecting food donors with people in need

The competition culminated on Dec. 2 with an online awards ceremony hosted by the Bicentennial Office.

Xining Chen and Zi Wang

The top prize of $10,000 went to team MiniWaste, whose FoodMap information platform promises to connect small food banks in Montreal with food donors and people in need. The non-profit venture was started by two PhD students in Chemistry, Xining Chen and Zi Wang, and a recent Chemical Engineering graduate, Zhe Li, who works as a chef in a local restaurant.

Zhe Li

Zhe had noticed that restaurants sometimes had to discard perishable but perfectly edible food because the quantities were too small for a food donation distributor.

“Food banks don’t have the resources to have a systematic inventory management system,” explains Xining Chen.

Sustaining emotional and social well-being

The second-place team, MentaLingual, is developing a fun, educational app that uses the latest research in behavioural science to help users better understand their own emotional intelligence and support the emotional health of those around them. “We hope to contribute to the development of a more sustainable world by investing in the sustainability of human, emotional, and social well-being,” says MentaLingual CEO Emily Chen, who earned her BA honours degree last year in Urban Geography and Cognitive Science.

Two teams tied for third place: CoolHealth and unEarth. CoolHealth is developing a mobile solar refrigerator to provide clinics in rural communites of sub-Saharan Africa with sustainable cooling for vaccines. The unEarth platform is designed to teach 9-13-year-olds about environmental systems thinking—the understanding that all ecosystems are connected. The team is developing three systems for youngsters to explore interactively, in English, French, and Spanish: the Saint Lawrence River, the Mesoamerican Reef, and the Amazon Rainforest.

The McGill community and the general public also got to vote for their favorite project. Their choice: the Algo team, which is working on a large-scale device to remove harmful algal blooms from bodies of water and convert it into biomass and biofuel.

To learn more about the Algo initiative watch the short video below:

Student advisory team’s key role

Students played a key role in shaping impact200, as they have in driving other campus sustainability initiatives. (The Sustainability Projects Fund, created in 2009 as a partnership between McGill’s student societies and the University, is the largest of its kind in Canada.)

A student advisory team came up with the ‘impact200’ name for the challenge, and worked with collaborators from across the University, including the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative. MSSI members suggested using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a framework. The students, in turn, generated the idea of using the SDGs to tag the teams and mentors -- helping to determine which students to connect with which mentors.

That approach helped to spur proposals from students in a wide variety of disciplines. “We really, really wanted to make sure that people were aware that they could be from any background,” says Ellen Ferguson, VP Marketing and Communications for the student advisory team. “So we were trying to market in different faculties, to get really diverse groups and make sure that people knew it wasn’t just Environmental students—it could be anyone.”

The effort paid off. “The teams look really diverse, which is what we wanted,” says advisory team member Michelle Pelletier, a third-year Civil Engineering student.

Next steps

Other campus groups collaborating on impact200 include the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, the McGill Office of Sustainability, and several faculties.

“It’s been really exciting to watch your ideas come to life over the last year,” François Miller, Executive Director of Sustainability at McGill, told the finalists at the Dec. 2 awards event. “The bold proofs of concept that you’re putting forward today truly show the creativity and the passion that our students bring to the table.”

All 10 finalist teams will have the opportunity to work with the Dobson Centre to identify next steps for their projects.

“Universities have always been important agents of change in our society,” Professor Elena Bennett, Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Science, told the finalist teams. “You all have done fabulous work, and I am so impressed with all that you’ve achieved so far. And I look forward to seeing what you’re going to achieve in the future.”


- Neale McDevitt contributed to this article

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