Students take aim at global problems

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

Not even old enough to drive, Michael Gibson already had his dream car in mind. But the Stowe High School student wasn't thinking about whether a Porsche or a BMW would better handle Vermont's deliciously twisty back roads at unmentionable speeds. Nope, his saucy set of wheels would have one purpose: to help mitigate global climate change.

To be fair, Michael had some added incentive. He, together with three partners – one from the US and two from China – had entered the Global Challenge contest, a locally founded initiative to improve America's math and science capabilities.

Over the course of the past school year, the group developed a 30-page business proposal for a car with an engine on each wheel, which would reduce friction and improve efficiency. The cross-cultural effort paid off. In July, the team members were each awarded a $2,500 college scholarship.

"There were times when you were, like, uh, I don't know about this – there's so much to do," Michael recalls. But then his team learned that real engineers were working on a similar model. "We thought, 'Hey, that wasn't so dumb!' "

In a climate of troubling indicators foreshadowing a decline in US competitiveness – from international testing comparisons to the low cost of skilled labor in Asia – the Global Challenge stems from a refreshing premise: America does have the tools to compete in an increasingly borderless and competitive world. And one way to cultivate those resources is to give high school students a more compelling opportunity to engage with science and math than is offered by, say, the boring chemistry teacher in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

The need for that kind of program struck Vermont-based management consultant Craig DeLuca in 2005. Over the course of a long weekend, he read Tom Friedman's tome on globalization, "The World is Flat"; a client of his decided to outsource the manufacturing and design components of its operation; and his local school board proposed postponing the purchase of new science textbooks because of budget constraints.

"The stars aligned for Craig, and he had this epiphany," explains David Rocchio, recounting his business partner's concern about America's future prosperity when he came into the office the next morning. "I, being as glib as I am, said, 'This is what we do for a living – fix it.' "

And so the Global Challenge was born.

The project, which just completed its pilot year and was awarded an $891,000 grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) last month, puts US, Chinese, and Indian high school students together in a team problem-solving competition that deals with a science-related issue. Top performers are each awarded college scholarships of up to $5,000 once the recipients enroll in a science- or math-related major.

"Young people in America need to be excited about the challenges of life, and not just the benefits of a good life," explains Mr. DeLuca, his eyes intense with conviction.

While America's strength in the postwar era is still yielding those benefits, many fear that the country is in danger of losing that "good life." In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15-year-olds ranked 24th among their peers in 41 countries in mathematical literacy and problem-solving.

A Congress-commissioned report released in February by the National Academies pinpoints the consequent need for better-trained K-12 teachers, as well as a need to generate more student interest in science, technology, engineering, and math – or STEM disciplines.

But instead of trying to reform the whole US education system in one fell swoop, DeLuca opted for starting an "insurgency" at its fringes. As outlined in the NSF grant proposal, the Global Challenge promises to work from outside the system to address several issues raised by the National Academies and others. It outlines an interdisciplinary, extracurricular opportunity geared mainly toward disadvantaged students (who scored far worse on the 2003 PISA) that would get them to engage with math and science through problem-solving activities.

"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.

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."

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