Students and faculty reimagine the future


Winning team presentation Reimagining the Future
Aman Mehta (right; MechSE) with teammates Ishita Purwar (center; Physics) and Arya Haria (MechSE). "The competition made me understand the urgency with which we need to act toward climate change and the number of challenges we need to overcome before we truly reach net zero, and for that, we collectively need to reimagine our future," Mehta said.

On Saturday morning December 3, Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies Reitumetse Mabokela introduced a gathering in the Siebel Center for Design by observing that “this competition embodies our university’s global strategy, called Vision 2030.”

Mabokela was speaking at the awards ceremony of the second annual Sustainability Competition for Undergraduates, called “Reimagine our Future.” Mabokela said the competition potentially served as a bridge to universities in the Global South “as we work together to produce sustainable and innovative solutions.”

The eight-week competition attracted 180 students from across campus, as well as 25 students from the University of Pretoria in South Africa and 38 students from Zhejiang University in China. The competition challenged students to generate actionable ideas that would promote one or more of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Competitors had to communicate their ideas in no more than 1,000 words in a high-impact fact sheet. The entries covered a wide spectrum, including engineering, chemistry, marine and land ecosystems, health sciences, food sciences, education, economics, earth sciences, and art and design.

The overall winners this year, with a $2,000 prize, were a team comprised of Aman Mehta and Arya Haria (both from Mechanical Science and Engineering) and Ishita Purwar (Physics). The team showcased how lithium could be extracted from geothermal brines, thus reducing extraction of virgin lithium used in products such as batteries, generating clean energy and conserving water resources. The team was advised by Professor Lili Cai (MechSE) and Dr. John Abelson (Materials Science and Engineering), with assistance from Dr. Arpit Dwivedi (Cache Energy).

“The nine finalist judges from academia and industry were unanimous in their decision,” said competition co-founder MechSE Professor Leon Liebenberg. “The judges were especially impressed by the winning team’s holistic problem-solving approach and their superb research. The judges believed that this concept has tremendous potential to help pave the way to a more sustainable future.”

second place team, Reimaginging our Future
Second place winners Erin Niebeck (Architecture) and Jason Li (Physics). "This competition has reminded me that climate action must be executed with an interdisiplinary approach," Niebeck said. 

Two second prizes of $1,000 each were awarded. Etienne Sirois (Landscape Architecture) won one such award for his novel ideas about marketing native plants in communities across the U.S.  Sirois appeared upbeat after his thought-provoking presentation.  “The competition has allowed me to learn more about an important area of research and to fully explore problem-solving. It also provided an excellent opportunity to connect and learn from professionals with many years of experience in their respective fields,” he said.

The other second prize was awarded to Erin Nibeck (Architecture) and Jason Li (Physics) who proposed using phytoremediation mats to treat polluted water and capture carbon dioxide. Their sustainability solutions crossed the boundaries of chemistry and physics and delved into socio-cultural and governance issues surrounding the use of water. Nibeck and Li also won an additional $500 award for the most interdisciplinary project.

Three more teams won $500 each for their innovative ideas for addressing Shanghai’s water shortage; producing sustainable fishing nets made of hemp; and using agrivoltaics in Ethiopia. The entries of the six prize-winners and those of the other six finalists can be viewed on the competition webpage.

Rosner finalist
Samuel Rosner, one of the 12 finalists, presented a novel idea to track minerals to help curb human rights violations in modern minerals mining. The contestants presented their ideas at the hybrid event, held at the Siebel Center for Design and streamed on Zoom.

The competition was organized and presented by the Student Sustainability Committee, with much of the organizational work managed by Allie Cruz an undergraduate in Environmental Economics & Policy, Spanish, Natural Resources Conservation) and currently an intern with the Student Sustainability Committee. Jack Reicherts (Civil and Environmental Engineering, Natural Resources and Environmental Science), President of the Student Sustainability Committee, invited all of the UIUC contestants to apply to the Student Sustainability Committee for funds to support further development and implementation of their proposals.

“Our aim is to make the competition available next year on all three campuses of the University of Illinois as well as at some community colleges. Several additional international universities will also be invited to participate,” said competition co-founder Professor Emeritus Robert McKim (Religion). He stressed the importance of inviting students across all fields and disciplines to submit ideas and projects that would advance the SDGs in future iterations of the competition.

Professor and competition co-founder Warren Lavey (School of Earth, Society & Environment and College of Law) echoed McKim, spoke about the increasing appreciation of the close connection between human health and ecosystem health and how this is now being reflected in medical education, among others. “Would it not be great if change could be associated with real progress?”