News & Events
April 18, 2022
(Un)Hacking Downstream Consequences:
A Novel Innovation and Entrepreneurship Event
By Alex Pedersen & Sarah Dawson
The McDonald Institute piloted a novel online innovation and entrepreneurship event this past semester leveraging funds from Experience Ventures through the Faculty of Arts and Science at Queen’s University. The (Un)Hacking Downstream Consequences event drew together 33 undergraduate students from 20 different majors across six different degree programs to solve real-world problems and develop future-ready skills.
Students were placed into nine multi-disciplinary teams and had the support of a graduate or research scientist mentor to support them towards their solutions. Experience Ventures identified six innovation and entrepreneurship skills to be developed during the event: resiliency, opportunity recognition, action orientation, risk management, systems thinking and transdisciplinary thinking. These transferrable skills were adopted and championed during the (Un)Hackathon to prepare students for personal and professional growth in the future.
However, this was no ordinary hackathon event. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, hackathons are short-term competition-style events that incentivize teams to work rapidly on a problem to produce a solution prototype. Hackathons host workshops, guest speakers, and sometimes connect teams with mentors. However, hackathons are often barrier laden for equity deserving students. In alignment with the Institute’s strategic vision for equity, diversity, inclusion, and Indigenization (EDII), the staff team endeavored to re-think the hackathon experience to create a more inclusive event.
Rather than press forward with a traditional hackathon timeline of problem-solving for 48-72 hours straight, the (Un)Hackathon event was designed to spread out 16 hours of synchronous and asynchronous remote learning and group work over 10 days to accommodate student’s work life balance. Teams participated in synchronous workshops and speaker events, while also gathering asynchronously to work together on the solution to a problem affecting collaborators and partners of the McDonald Institute.
The Institute was joined by Dr. Samantha Lawler, Assistant Professor at Campion College and the University of Regina, who is a well-known dynamical modeler with a strong background in observational astronomy. Much of her work involves “observing” imaginary planets and dust using computer simulations and comparing her predictions with real data from real telescopes. Samantha raised the issue of megaconstellation satellites impeding the night sky for student groups to consider, addressing the questions: How can we ensure access to the night sky with rapid increases in satellite launches and satellites in low Earth orbit? How can we mitigate unforeseen downstream consequences of megaconstellations of artificial satellites?
Dr. Susan Lord, Queen’s Professor and Director of the Vulnerable Media Lab (VML) joined the (Un)Hackathon event as a novel collaborator. The VML aims to preserve and make available (where appropriate) the cultural heritage and practice of women, 2SLGBTQ+, and Indigenous peoples in various forms of ‘obsolete’ or ‘marginal’ media. The organization had several key problems to tackle in the future regarding data storage and access that opened doors for the student groups to problem solve. Student groups who pursued this area focused on the questions: How does access and preservation of art created by marginalized people affect marginalized groups? How can we address unforeseen downstream consequences of maintaining and characterizing art media?
The Institute was fortunate to have the support of Jenna Saffin, Education and Outreach Coordinator at SNOLAB, who brought practical experience and key issues of PPE and cleanroom requirements for physics experiments at SNOLAB to the student’s attention. Both Jenna and Blaire Flynn (Senior Education and Outreach Officer) drew from their and other SNOLAB staff experience to help frame the following questions for students: How does increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE) affect people, cultures, the planet, and science? How can we address unforeseen downstream consequences of current and future PPE use?
To support the nine undergraduate groups, nine mentors were brought onboard to support the undergraduate teams. Graduate students and early career researchers were recruited from across Canada to participate in the (Un)Hackathon event. Dr. Sarah Dawson, Mentor Trainer and Coordinator, and Dr. Terry Bridges, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Okanogan College, designed and implemented a mentor training workshop prior to the event itself. This professional development opportunity was designed to develop essential mentorship skills before the (Un)Hackathon began.
During the 10-day event, teams participated in several workshops and synchronous meetings to gain knowledge and experience developing innovation and entrepreneurship skills. This was enabled through two professional development opportunities. The first two workshops were delivered by Dr. James “Jim” McLellan, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Academic Director of the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre. These opportunities focused on understanding Systems Thinking and Jim offered feedback to each group on their unique systems maps affecting their proposed solution. Edward Thomas, Interim Managing Director of the McDonald Institute, delivered a timely failure-modes and affects analysis session that introduced students to common tools used to identify and assess risk on large projects and how to work through those risks while anticipating others.
Finally, students were addressed by Nobel Laureate, Dr. Art McDonald, who shared his experience regarding what it takes to solve unique problems in a research environment. Dr. McDonald’s keynote kicked off a panel discussion of experts, including Dr. Reşat Fuat Çam (Postdoctoral Fellow with Vulnerable Media Lab at Queen’s University), Dr. Aaron Boley (Associate Professor of Physics, UBC and Co-Director of the Outer Space Institute), Dr. Laurie Rousseau-Nepton (Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Hawaii and Resident Astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope) and Blair Flynn (Senior Education and Outreach Officer at SNOLAB). Each panelist brought their unique experiences to the table when addressing problems from their own positionality and highlighted aspects of overcoming failure, the benefits of collaboration and interdisciplinary work. These researchers offered an inspiring and hopeful look towards the future.
Each of the nine student teams successfully submitted their solutions to the Problem Holder “judges” on Day 9 of the event. It was noted by all the judges that each solution had significant strengths and addressed a wide range of downstream consequences. Some solutions were intended to be implemented over the long term, while others provided immediate remedies. Other groups tackled global consequences, while different teams focused in on local perspectives. Overall, every solution had unique applications and every problem holder described how difficult it was to choose a “top” solution for their problem set.
The top solutions put forward for each problem set were as follows:
Team: Deathstar Janitors
Solution: The UN Council for Outer Space (UNCOS)
Solution: SNOBUS to provide communal transportation to the lab and reduce carbon footprint
Team: VML No Allergies
Solution: Creation of policies preserving and organizing digital media
Every student who participated in the event received $325 as an honorarium for their participation in the 16 hours of the event. Mentors received $375 for their expertise and paid training leading up to the event. Students were supported in translating this experience to their resumes following the event to highlight the awards received and skills developed.
All student groups are invited to apply for a pilot Business Ideation funding opportunity that will open for applications this summer. Participants can apply for up to $2,000 of expenses reimbursement to further develop their solution into a business model. Information on how to apply will be posted on the Funding Opportunities page.
A full report regarding the design and implementation of this novel event is in development at the Institute. For anyone interested in understanding the design, implementation, and feedback, please contact Alexandra Pedersen (email@example.com) for a copy.
The Institute would like to recognize the invaluable support and guidance that Problem Holders, workshop facilitators, and mentors provided to undergraduate students.