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Making Service-Oriented Student Projects Stick: Lessons Learned from Early MIT IDEAS Competition Winners

Making Service-Oriented Student Projects Stick: Lessons Learned from Early MIT IDEAS Competition Winners

Apr 11, 2011

Rethinking Community Service through IDEAS

             MIT’s entrepreneurial activity flows from students who are actively engaged in projects that break through classroom walls. Increasingly, these projects are becoming more service-oriented, meaning that they attempt to solve an underserved community’s unmet need in collaboration with a local partner. The communities can be in Cambridge or in Cambodia, and the solutions range from convenient phone-based translation services for recent immigrants to interactive mapmaking for children in Brazil’s impoverished barrios. These projects push the idea of community service beyond ladling in soup kitchens and pure charity, especially as students become more aware of how their technical skills can be applied to causes that need them.

            At MIT, one popular forum through which students can embark on or develop their own service-oriented projects is the IDEAS Competition, an annual competition that awards monetary prizes to student teams that have designed and implemented innovative projects to positively impact underserved communities. Since 2002, over $264,000 has been awarded to 64 teams in 28 countries. The winning teams have leveraged their publicity from the IDEAS Competition to raise over $3.2 million in follow-on funding. At least three for-profits, five non-profits, and eight technology-transfer initiatives have been established by IDEAS Competition winners, with over 10 other teams still working toward these goals[1]. Fall 2010 marked the launch of the MIT Global Challenge, which invites the worldwide MIT community to collaborate with current students through the IDEAS Competition.

            Of course, students benefit from participating in the IDEAS Competition. They are guaranteed to experience the ins and outs of working on a team, operate under real constraints, and have their outlooks and creativity stretched. They may even win a few thousand dollars to implement their projects. However, whether communities will benefit from the students’ blood, sweat, and tears in the long run is not as guaranteed. Working with students can strain community organizations’ limited resources, and most students do not remain students forever, putting project sustainability into question.

            This article offers four pieces of advice to students who want to make their student projects stick. The wisdom was culled from a handful of early IDEAS Competition winners who have met or failed to meet their implementation goals.


1. Be Realistic From the Beginning

            Participating in IDEAS requires creativity, but that creativity should be rooted in reality. It is too easy to think loftily and over-ambitiously when writing a project proposal; implementation is an entirely different ordeal that requires concrete, doable steps of action. IDEAS Competition award money is available for one year, and teams should be as realistic as possible when proposing timelines and budgets. Teams should know the local needs and their technical solutions well enough to address potential constraints and obstacles. 

            According to the team leader of Sistema de Alerta Temprana, an early flood warning system in Honduras and 2004 IDEAS Competition winner, the project faced difficulties in implementation for two reasons: 1) the team did not actually understand the problem and 2) were too ambitious with their solution. A misunderstanding of the community’s water issues led to the development of inappropriate hardware, which pushed their schedule far behind. A second assessment trip was necessary, and the final design was finished a year late. The team behind Chlorination in Honduras, a 2004 IDEAS Competition winner that made drinking water safe via chlorination, also discovered the technical insufficiencies of its solution after winning. Six months and three trips later, the team tossed its new, high-tech solution and returned to its original, simpler, manual design.

            Not only should teams know the local problems in the communities they work in, but they should also know themselves. Members must be honest about their commitment level and availability, whether they are onboard for the semester, the summer, or the long haul. Since these projects involve additional stakeholders – particularly the community partner – not following through has real consequences.


2. Build a Solid Student Team

            A winning IDEAS team leader who continued his education at Stanford University and became heavily involved in designing and disseminating technologies that create human impact said, “If innovations will succeed in the world, then you need to have people who know how to work on a team.” In his experiences on both coasts, he recognized that teams that made the biggest differences in communities were those that were interdisciplinary (not just engineers, but also entrepreneurs), worked well together, and trusted each other.

            The team behind Innovative Drinking Water, a winner of the first IDEAS Competition and developer of a simple arsenic water filter for use in Nepal, experienced unfortunate team dynamics that had negative consequences on impact. The team member who was in charge of implementation had a different plan from his teammates, and after they won, he insisted on carrying out his plan alone using a portion of the prize money. His teammates conceded by giving him 20 percent of their award, which he essentially wasted because his plans never evolved.

            There also seems to be a relationship between geographical proximity to the local community and community impact. A team that made infrequent visits to its community lost connection and made minimal community impact; a team consisting of one person who made frequent trips made some impact but could not scale the project when necessary; another team consisting of one person who literally packed his bags and moved to his target community made more impact through maintaining very strong community relationships and demonstrating commitment to other groups who would carry out the project after he left; and a larger team with a leader in the field and other committed members in the United States is on its way to making even more impact through earning additional funding to implement its business strategy.


3. Collaborate with a Solid Community Partner

            Service-oriented student projects work when the community partner is interested in the project and established enough to provided support. Depending on the innovation and implementation plan, the organization can plan a number of roles. For student teams that seek to establish their own organization to develop and disseminate their innovation, community partners provide an undisputed understanding of local conditions and real connections to people who will benefit from the innovation. For student teams that seek to transfer technology, the community partner ultimately becomes the implementing agency and must have the technical know-how and commitment to the project. The latter was the case for Innovative Drinking Water, whose community partner was able to carry out their project after a new political situation kept students from traveling into the country. Unfortunately, other teams, such as Sistema de Alerta Temprana, faced the loss of an advocate within the community partner organization, which eventually led to disinterest in the project.


4. Prepare for Technology Transfer to New Students and to Partner Organizations 

            If a student team knows that it will not be the implementers of the project in the very long run, this should be noted from the beginning and accounted for through extensive, formal documentation of the innovation, the community context, and any potential obstacles. These teams should be ready to transfer information and technology to the community partner or to other students who will continue the project. Dead projects should be promoted if there is still community interest. Students often create beneficial technologies that fail to leave the Institute because the original student inventors never implemented it, no new students continued developing it or tried taking it to the field because it was not advertised, or there was no documentation of the technology that would allow new students to easily continue the project.

Through the recently established Technology Dissemination Fellowship, the MIT International Development Initiative is attempting to formalize a technology transfer process between students and eventually to multiple community partners who can benefit from the same innovation. Whether students are useful as agents of technology transfer to community partners is yet to be determined, since their time in the field to learn the context, adapt the technology, teach the technology, and build relationships is extremely limited. A more permanent, institutional liaison who maintains strong connections between students and community partners by keeping communication channels open when students are not in the field may be a key driver of technology transfer.


The Big Idea Behind IDEAS?

            This discussion requires returning to core questions regarding the nature of the IDEAS Competition. Is the primary objective of service-based student projects to highlight novel ideas and inventions, to provide students with learning opportunities, or to create positive sustainable impact in communities? Are student inventors the best implementers, or should innovations be disseminated by partner organizations, other students with more appropriate skills, or small and growing enterprises? The answers to these questions affect how students should approach service-based projects and how institutions should formalize the processes of identifying and implementing these inventions. By doing so, students’ innovations may have a greater chance of benefiting the people they were intended to help.