Every fall students come back from summer vacation with experiences to share and stories to tell. The wonderful part for the most successful students is when they can combine their stories about the good time they had with stories about working on interesting student projects to support a good cause. Sound exciting? For the last few years I have been supervising students’ projects, and my students come back after the holidays with incredible stories about their great achievements. Here is how it works…
1. Choose a good cause for your student project
International competitions and awards provide the best opportunities for students to focus their creativity on good causes, helping to address various issues at the local, national or international level. They also provide a chance to work on the implementation of the most innovative ideas and projects.
Just turn on the TV or browse the internet and you will learn about many challenges faced by communities around the world today. What you may not have realized is that many organizations and companies at different levels offer awards or support for young people to contribute to these projects. With the right approach it is always possible to combine students’ work with interesting projects.
For example, many of my students at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) work on a range of projects related to sustainable development in developing countries as a part of their coursework on sustainable development. I always encourage them to think about the practical side of case studies and consider the implementation of their student projects.
When students think about implementation, they also can and should look for project funding. For the last two years my students have participated in the Innovative Forum for Students projects organized by the Almaty Mayor’s Office and United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) Annual Student Research Contests on sustainable development, run by the Korean Association in support of the UNAI.
2. Be creative… but stay focused
One of the most difficult parts of student projects – and any project in real life – is to find an innovative solution for problems around us. Paradoxically, it is not so difficult to identify large-scale global problems; however it is a challenge to scale them down to make them manageable for student teams and for implementation with a very limited budget.
Very often students think too big – at a very large scale – and promise to move mountains. The real skill in innovations, including social innovations, is to see the big picture and identify an angle or smaller target problem for a creative solution. In our case, my MDP students at KazNU have been working on solving the irrigation water shortage by focusing on a small part of the issue: the preservation of rain water in a southern province of Kazakhstan, which faces water shortages for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) working in agriculture in the summer.
Our team identified some possible solutions, focusing on cheaper ways of preserving rain water. The preservation of the rain water does not provide a total solution for the SMEs; however, at a very small farming level it might provide water for a few additional days or even weeks, contributing to an increase of agricultural output by 10–20%.
3. Choose an appropriate angle and make it applicable
The secret of any creative thinking lies in the ability to identify the right combination of effort and resources – finding a good solution at minimal cost. Very often this approach requires a different look at already widely used materials and resources. It is also essential to choose an appropriate angle that is applicable in a particular environment – city or rural, high intensity or low intensity, etc.
In our project, the students have looked at various ways of preserving and distributing water in very small orchards, large backyards or even at Al-Farabi KazNU campus. The cheapest way – which anyone can implement even in his or her backyard – was to use ordinary plastic bottles, combining them into a small drip irrigation system using a small set of rubber hoses.
At the same time, our teammates suggested a second option – an up-scaled solution involving inexpensive water tank storages installed next to building walls, so the entire roof would become an improvised water collection system. And the third option involved a few more resources and more complex engineering to build underground water storage, which would, however, still be simple enough to be handled by an SME or a small farmer.
4. Remember presentation and planning are essential
Just finding an interesting and innovative solution is not enough. There are two important aspects to consider and address: style of presentation, and timing. Very often brilliant ideas are not appreciated when they are not written in the language of the grant/award requirements or “investment angel” views on innovation, so it is obvious that you need to do a little homework before submitting an application.
It is really essential to prepare a high-impact presentation, project summary and description, which is tailored to your project funding or supporting organization according to their published requirements. In our case it was really a challenge to write a comprehensive three-page summary for a 30-page project report. And we had to write it under an extremely tight deadline – in fact we almost missed the deadline because we did not carefully read all the requirements and conditions right at the beginning. We learned the hard way about focus and timing!
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