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Students take aim at global problems

The Global Challenge teams up US and Asian students to solve real-life issues.

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"It's a totally unique approach," says Domenico Grasso, dean of the University of Vermont's engineering school, who is the"principal investigator," or project manager, on the NSF grant proposal – one of numerous proposalshe's shepherded through the process over the years.

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While the grant process was under way, DeLuca launched a pilot program last fall, offered as an extracurricular activity for sophomores at Stowe High School and People's Academy in nearby Morrisville, Vt. The program initially attracted 13 two-person teams, which were each responsible for finding an adult mentor and two teammates in either China or India.

That was tough, say Jake Schwartz and Mike Wood, two students who contacted embassies and international schools in China and India in a vain attempt to find partners for their plan to outfit homes with solar nanocells – sheets of tiny solar panels – to drastically improve efficiency. Many people thought it was a scam, because of the college scholarship money promised. Eventually Jake and Mike teamed up with two Indian students whose American students had dropped out.

In the end, Jake, Mike, Michael, and Michael's partner Ruth McGovern were the only US participants who managed to complete the proposal, which included sections on market analysis, manufacturing and operations, feasibility, and key personnel. Sitting in the Stowe High School library a few days before school got out last spring, they said one of the toughest parts was having only one real deadline and no regularly scheduled meetings.

But Michael's dad, Dr. David Gibson, who served as the mentor for his son's team and was the lead writer on the Global Challenge NSF grant proposal, makes clear that challenge is a key component of the program – even if it means a majority of participants will fail to meet the program's standards.

"We certainly want to be supportive, but we don't want to detract from how rigorous and challenging going into these STEM careers can be," says Dr. Gibson, who's on the board of the Global Challenge. As the program looks to expand to 60 schools within Vermont, and 10 or 20 outside the state next year, Gibson says that it would be "fantastic" to maintain the 15 percent rate of high-quality, judgeable proposals that the pilot year saw.

But Gibson, DeLuca, and the rest of the board plan to add more structure to the program as well, with smaller interim goals throughout the year. DeLuca has also hired two people in China who will help coordinate the program there, including mentors for the Chinese students involved.

That cross-cultural cooperation is a key aspect of the program that makes it socially relevant, says Dr. Grasso. It gets the students to "look at working with our colleagues overseas, instead of seeing them as a nemesis," he explains.

Menglu Che, one of Michael and Ruth's Chinese partners, was surprised by her partners' freedom to explore so many options. But she was also impressed by how they worked together.

"In the past, I felt that Americans were very independent, [that they] had a strong feeling of 'self,' " she writes in an e-mail from Qufu, China – the hometown of Confucius. But throughout the project, her partners showed good teamwork, she says. "They did a really good job in considering others' feelings, and sharing ideas interactively."

Though she thought she and her Chinese peers might have the upper hand in solving problems "on papers," she said she thinks Americans will do better in solving practical problems.

"What I learned best [through the Global Challenge]," she concludes, "is how to make my knowledge useful in a real project."