Challenge to Students: Help Make the World a Better Place

IEEE and IBM team up to offer prizes for ingenuity

16 July 2012

IEEE student members: Do you have a world-changing idea? If so, then put together a team from your university and enter the IEEE/IBM Smarter Planet Challenge. The top five projects will earn prizes ranging from US $1000 to $5000. The competition—open to teams from around the world—seeks new ideas for applying engineering, science, and other disciplines to solve pressing social challenges.

The IEEE/IBM challenge, which echoes the broader IBM Smarter Planet Initiative, allows students to submit either completed projects or ideas from five areas of interest: analytics that reveal insights from the vast amounts of data created; resilience, which refers to the ability to adapt and respond to business disruptions and to maintain continuous operations; security of systems that protect people, assets, data, and technology; social business ideas, which define the ways people interact, form relationships, and make decisions; or sustainability of the planet’s water, energy, and other resources. The projects can be aimed at a particular industry, a social issue, or a group of people, or even an individual with a problem worth solving.

The competition’s purpose is not just for students to create projects of benefit to others but to help them see the value of an engineering career. “We want to give students experience in addressing a problem, and so help them become more practical practitioners of their art,” says IEEE Fellow Arthur W. Winston, the challenge co-chair and 2004 IEEE president.

According to Winston’s co-chair, Wendy Murphy, executive program manager for IBM Global University Programs, “Students will gain practical, hands-on experience from doing something for their own communities,” she says.

Unlike other competitions, teams in this challenge won’t be composed of engineering students alone. Each team of three to five members must include at least one IEEE student member and at least one team member from a non-engineering field of study such as business or health, as well as a faculty advisor.

“We want students to broaden their perspectives and take a multidisciplinary approach,” Winston says. Adds Murphy “You need collaboration with people in other fields in order to achieve and be inspired.” She frequently encourages engineers, she says, to enhance their own creativity by enlisting collaborators from the arts. “Collaboration brings other points of view and adds value to the whole equation.”

Once you have a team in place, she says, pick a problem in your community to try to solve. “Through this contest,” Murphy explains, “we want people to know that students are really interested in doing good things around their communities.”

This is the second year of the challenge, following a successful pilot phase last year in which the competition was opened to students in the IEEE Boston and United Kingdom/Republic of Ireland sections. Eighteen teams took part, with top prizes going to teams from MIT (which designed a practical photovoltaic system that others could easily implement elsewhere in the world) and University College Cork (which developed a system that improved a patient’s access to health care by remotely monitoring vital signs).

“The pilot challenge program had great results,” Winston says. “And we got some fantastic feedback for how to improve our approach. Now we’re ready to move on to reaching students around the world.”

The IEEE/IBM collaboration traces its origins to April 2010, when the two organizations produced a conference in Dublin called “Transforming Engineering Education: Creating Interdisciplinary Skills for Complex Global Environments.” Since then, the two organizations have continued to explore opportunities for competitions that would involve both students and faculty. “It’s very gratifying to have this kind of relationship with IBM,” Winston says. “It’s a tremendous marriage with a common goal; each organization has something valuable to contribute.”

Winners of this year’s IEEE/IBM Smarter Planet Challenge will be announced in December, but that won’t necessarily be the end for the submitted projects. Some will live on next year as part of the IBM Students for a Smarter Planet program.  “We’re hoping to find a way to introduce the projects to students at other schools,” Winston says.

To make that possible, the challenge’s application form asks each team to identify what would be needed for others to carry out its project, including materials, resources, skills, and time requirements. Teams also are asked to describe the steps a teacher would need to present their project in the classroom.

Winston notes that the challenge is one of the few dynamic activities designed explicitly by IEEE for IEEE student members. “It’s not just about them learning something,” he says. “Our goal is to stimulate them and give them experience in solving a problem, and in the process become more practical practitioners of their art.

The IEEE/IBM Smarter Planet Challenge is open to entries now. Submissions are due by 1 November.

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