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High school students in World Vision Challenge get tips from U of T experts

Victoria Park Collegiate students (from left): Purushoth Thavendran, Amy Huang, Hussein Hassanali, Aarthy Thamotharanathan, Vickkram Ramarethinam, Yao Yan Huang and Ulla Hagomer (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

These Victoria Park Collegiate Institute students designed a generator attachment for a water carrier to harness electricity in the developing world

Toronto high school students are trying to bring power to the people with a generator that fits onto a popular water-carrying device in the developing world. 

But first they must make their case before a panel of entrepreneurs, academics and investors in the finals of the World Vision Social Innovation Challenge. They are the only high school team left in the competition, which is open to university or college students and recent graduates. 

The winning team receives up to $50,000 technical support and advice to develop and test their product. 

With the big day now just weeks away, the seven students from Victoria Park Collegiate came to the University of Toronto to prepare. They presented their device to a group of U of T experts and Simona Chiose, The Globe and Mail's higher education reporter and a U of T alumna.

The World Vision challenge this year stemmed from one of the United Nation's sustainable development goals: “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

The students' answer was to fasten a generator to a Hippo Roller, a water carrier made of a plastic barrel and handle, which rolls like a wheelbarrow. 

Their target market was Tanzania, where only 56 per cent of people had access to an “improved” water source such as piped water in 2015, according to the World Bank.

Hussein Hassanali, one of the students, says he was a little nervous before presenting to the expert panel in the U of T Governing Council boardroom. “It looked like Parliament,” he said afterward. 

U of T faculty, including assistant professor and associate director of the Centre for Global Engineering Amy Bilton and Anita McGahan, a professor of strategic management at the Rotman School  of Management, cross-appointed to the Munk School of Global Affairs, quizzed the students on different aspects of their project and provided advice.

Have they taken maintenance into account? Are the devices affordable for people in the developing world? Have they considered partnering with local community organizations to bring the cost down? 

Joseph Wong, a professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science and associate vice-president and vice-provost, international student experience, said he was impressed with the students' idea. “I hope that this kind of experience shows young people that they can have an impact – that though they are young, their ideas are valuable,” he said.

The project grew out of the Global Ideas Institute, founded by Wong. The institute, at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs, provides high school students with research and learning opportunities.

Victoria Park teacher, Katie Bremner, said it was “an amazing day” for her students. “The team has worked really hard on their concept for nine months and to see it at this stage is such an accomplishment,” she said.

Rosemary Evans, principal of University of Toronto Schools, said she was happy to see a high school-university partnership reinforcing an international education. 

“We ask ourselves, 'What is a global education?'” she said. “It's not just learning about something; it's about getting involved and understanding problems from multiple perspectives.”

On June 22, the team was awarded the People’s Choice Prize of $20,000 for seed funding to prototype and test their social enterprise idea in partnership with World Vision Canada.