Putting Young Minds to Work

Xylem's Global Student Innovation Challenge lets students worldwide compete for cash prizes as they devise potential solutions to the world’s pressing water problems

Putting Young Minds to Work

The water and wastewater sector depends on a new generation of devoted professionals to replace those retiring by the thousands. And solutions to the world’s water problems depend on new ideas and innovative technologies.

To serve those ends, Xylem has devised the Global Student Innovation Challenge for high school and college students worldwide. This was the second year of the competition.

Students competed for eight cash prizes from a $20,000 pool. Team SWiFT from Santa Clara, California, is the grand prize winner in the high school category, awarded for their efforts to improve the life span of a water pump. Team AquaFlo from Ontario and British Columbia in Canada is the grand prize winner in the university category for their design of two different technical solutions to notify users when a water hand pump is out of service.

Over eight weeks, the students submitted solutions to one of four challenge statements; they had access to master classes and support from mentors across the water industry. The challenges included:

• Keeping the Water Flowing in Rural Communities

• Smart Floating City Master Plan

• Data Storytelling for Water Insecurity

• Kickstarting Water’s Race to Net Zero

Participants worked in teams of up to five to compete for prizes for the top high school and college projects. Austin Alexander, vice president of Sustainability and Social Impact, and Leo Huang, leader of the Global Student Innovation Challenge, talked about the program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Why did Xylem create this competition?

Alexander: We have a long history of engaging youth, particularly through the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. In 2019 we decided to step it up, for two primary reasons. First, it gives us access to the best talent, and we want to make sure those people are coming to Xylem, or to the water sector. Second, these students, even though many are still in high school, are coming up with real, innovative and meaningful projects that in many cases can make a big difference.

TPO: How would you define the purpose of the Global Student Innovation Challenge?

Huang: The Innovation Challenge is part of our Xylem Ignite Global Student Development Program. It was conceived by a team of young professionals in the company as way to engage students’ passion and creativity. The purpose of the Innovation Challenge is to reach out to youth regarding water-related issues and to spark innovation and interest early on in their educational stage. 

TPO: How well was the first challenge received?

Huang: We engaged more than 650 students around the world, coming from more than 45 countries. We also engaged our staff members internally, as more than 30 of our employees volunteered to be mentors for the event. This year we attracted some 800 students from 51 countries.

TPO: How do you promote the Innovation Challenge?

Huang: We partner with a third-party event organizer who helps us with logistics and marketing, But but more important, within Xylem we have a database of student contacts that we leverage around the world. We have regional leads for the youth program in different geographical areas, and they leverage their local channels to promote the event. We translate our welcome email and our marketing materials into different languages to accommodate students globally.

Alexander: We are already engaged with a lot of students around the world through other events, such as the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Innovation Challenge allows us to reach back out to students who may have been involved in a water-related challenge before, and offer a high-touch event for them to take part in. Many of the students are already interested in water and have already engaged somewhere along the path. We’re trying to create an environment where we can keep them close and have a long-term engagement with them.

TPO: In basic terms, how is the competition structured?

Huang: The challenge is open to students from 13 to 25 years old. Each year we provide four different challenge statements. We design them so that students at different education levels and different ages and backgrounds are able to tackle one of the problems. So, for example, two of them are more technical, aiming toward students with STEM backgrounds. The other two are more open-ended so that any student could tackle them. We designed the program to be inclusive of people around the world. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what language they speak, or what technical skills they have.

TPO: How are the four challenge statements selected?

Huang: The program is a collaboration among Xylem colleagues around the world. Teams work in their spare time to come up with the challenges. We construct the challenge statements carefully to create the best fit for the students. We want them to address real-world challenges: something that’s meaningful and can have a significant impact on the water industry.

TPO: How much work is involved for students?

Huang: The end deliverable for the project is a five- to seven-minute video where they present the results of their project. We care most about the approach the students take, as opposed to the detail that they would be able to provide. For example, last year one of the challenges was to design a video game. We didn’t expect them to create a fully functional video game that someone could play. We focused on what message they were trying to deliver; the purpose of the end product they were trying to present to the audience.

TPO: Besides mentors from Xylem, what other help is available to the students?

Huang: One of the great features of the Innovation Challenge is the matching of mentors and student teams so that students can have a fully immersive experience. On top of that, we provide a resource package to help them get started. Once they sign up, they can access the resource tab on our online platform for an information package about the four challenge statements. We also have webinars to help students get started.

TPO: Can they work with their high school teachers or college professors?

Huang: Yes, but we stress that whatever help they get should not be solution-driven. It should be a thinking approach, a strategy by which to go about solving the problem.

TPO: Can students work either in teams or as individuals?

Huang: Yes, but most of them compete in teams. For those who don’t have a team, we offer a team formation webinar. There are also channels on Slack and our event platform to help them find teammates. The webinar helps them get to know students around the world. The program is virtual, so for example, someone in the United States could team up with someone in India, as long as they are aware of the time difference and can arrange to work together effectively.

TPO: How are the projects submissions evaluated?

Huang: Our mentors did a pre-screening of the projects to make sure all the information was there. Then we used a judging rubric to evaluate each project.

TPO: How would you assess the quality of the responses to the challenge statements?

Alexander: I was on the judging panel last year, and it was incredible what some of these students pulled together in a matter of a few weeks. For example, the responses to video game challenge involved advanced-level computer science. Across the board we saw intricate thinking about the broader impact of the projects: How would it impact the community? Was it sustainable over time? In the case of projects involving products, how would they be operated and maintained? These students really are some of the best and brightest. The projects are what you would expect from college graduate work in many cases.

TPO: How are the winning students and projects recognized?

Huang: We hold an award ceremony. It is a virtual presentation that is live-streamed on our Xylem platform and is open to students all around the world.

TPO: Do any of the projects advance from concept to real-world application?

Alexander: For a couple of the winning projects in 2021, we saw that there was some potential, and the students were interested in taking that farther. So we assigned them long-term mentors who worked with them through the rest of the year. Nothing has come to market out of those projects, but it gave the students a chance not only to think more deeply about their projects but also about how their ideas might be commercialized. Working on an innovative challenge that they’re passionate about, with an industry partner, is a pretty rare combination. We hope it’s something valuable to students as they go on to college and after.


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