Sustainability-themed low-cost science experiments created by students around the globe at Pueblo Science’s hackathon

Despite facing COVID-19-related restrictions, the Pueblo Science organizing team, 80 student participants, and 20 mentors and judges teamed up over two weekends this September to create new science experiment kits for low-resource schools in the Philippines.

While the event was hosted at the University of Toronto last year, the second annual Hackathon for Science Education was held purely online: participants and mentors interacted by voice and text on Discord, speakers conducted workshops on Zoom, and the final pitches for each team were livestreamed on Twitch.

“I would have loved to have had the chance to work with the participants and mentors in person,” said Mayrose Salvador, the executive director of Pueblo Science. “However, putting this event online meant that we were able to work with students who were all over the world. Some teams were able to essentially work 24 hours a day because they had members in Taiwan, Qatar, and Alberta.”

Although the participants knew that the general goal of the competition was to design innovative low-cost science experiments, the specific challenge was not revealed until the morning of September 19, the first day of the hackathon. On that day, the teams of three to five participants were told that their target were high school classrooms in the Philippines and that their experiment needed to teach both a science concept in the Philippine curriculum, plus link the concept to a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).

“We wanted teachers to use the activities we created to not only teach basic science concepts found in the Philippine curriculum, but to link it to real life events that their students can relate to,” explained Anji Zhang, the co-chair of the Hackathon for Science Education.

“Ideally, teaching about how science affects SDGs will lead students to start thinking about what they can do locally to alleviate challenges and enhance the sustainability of communities in the Philippines. We want them to learn the science and be inspired to become a changemaker.”

Additional restrictions for the participating teams was that the cost of one-time kits had to cost $5 or less, re-useable kits cannot cost more than $20, and that all materials used in the design must be readily available for a teacher in a rural part of the Philippines.

To help them out with their ideas and prototype, Pueblo Science invited mentors—many of whom were University of Toronto alumni who have had experience in the Philippines—to provide guidance and encouragement. The combination of that and the participants’ creativity and hard work lead to some great projects which can be implemented into Pueblo’s teacher training programs.

For some participants, the knowledge that their work can be impactful drove them to continue working on the challenge despite it being one of the most difficult tasks they have done so far in their university career.

“[This was] an unconventional hackathon that drives people to discover passion and puts their knowledge and skills to the test,” participant Stanley L. commented. “We [got] to create real solutions for real people!”

The 13 completed projects (which included both a prototype of the experiment and a written teachers’ manual) were evaluated by two expert judging panels and three teams were selected for prizes.

The runner-up, who will receive $300 in cash, was the team led by Yi-Feng Lai. They created an activity that uses acid–base reactions to model the spread of  contagious diseases like the coronavirus.

Two winners were selected: the team led by Sydney Mendoza who created a model of how earthquake damage can be mitigated through the physics of waves, and the team led by Chirag Chopra who built a device that can clean debris from the ocean surface. The two winning teams will each receive $250 in gift cards in addition to $300 in cash.

One more prize is still up for grabs by the competitors. The $500 Evelyn Juan Memorial People’s Choice Award, named in honour of a long-time volunteer at Pueblo Science, will be selected by members of the general public, who can view two-minute videos and vote for their favourites over on Devpost until 10 am on October 11.

Resources for the Hackathon for Science Education, including the cash prizes, were provided by the sponsors for the event, Manulife, mbna, and TD Insurance. University of Toronto alumni can check out their preferred pricing for their insurance and credit card products. The gift card prizes were generously donated by the Bergeron Entrepreneurs in Science & Technology (BEST) Program at York University.

“I know how much work students have at the beginning of a school term,” Dr. Salvador added, “I am so appreciative of the time our participants and our event organizers put into helping advance science education in the Philippines.”

This blog was written by Leo Mui.

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