The Cleantech Challenge: Crossing Disciplines in Service of the Greater Good

A diverse team of students rally together to innovate creative solutions for climate change

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2021 marks the 9th year of the Cleantech Challenge at PSU

As another April Earth Day rolls by, it is a reminder that there is still much to do to secure the long-term wellbeing of our planet. But what does it really mean to combat rising emissions, promote clean energy, and adopt sustainable practices? It’s one thing to say but what does it mean or look like in practice? For almost a decade, PSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship has sought to tackle this exact question, hosting an annual Cleantech Challenge and inviting teams of students to imagine innovative solutions to this complex and dynamic issue of climate change.

While its name would seem to suggest an emphasis on science and engineering, the Cleantech Challenge has less to do with technology and more to do with developing new products, processes, approaches, and systems that help to move society towards environmental stewardship and sustainability, regardless of industry. Once selected, teams are given three months and university funding to develop their concepts, produce a prototype, and pitch a potential startup from their idea.

Because climate change is a multifaceted problem, its solutions must be as well. As a result, the Challenge lends itself to ideas and partnerships which often cross lines of major, discipline, and expertise to bring a new vision to life. This year, five teams of finalists competed for the grand prize and a chance to represent PSU at the statewide InventOR competition in June. With proposals ranging from an immersive children’s education center to adaptive kinetic architecture, and a system for recycling construction timber, they brought ideas from across the full spectrum of green and environmental innovation.

“What’s really great about the Challenge is that it’s not just the ideas that are diverse, but the teams,” said Center of Entrepreneurship’s logistics and events manager, Abigail Van Gelder. “You have business students meshed with engineering students, people from different disciplines and different focuses working together and bringing their own worldview, experience, and culture identity to make a well-rounded company and create something amazing.”

One team, FiA (Fashion in Action), sought to revolutionize the clothing and garment industry through the recycling of textile waste. Winners of this year’s people’s choice award, their concept involved creating a closed-loop for manufacturing, repurposing used cotton material to form new spools of yarn.

Though all three members of FiA were students in the MBA program at PSU, each brought a different set of interests and know-how to the competition. “One of my teammates had all this experience in human relations. She’s fantastic at details and logistics. Another is involved in sustainability and had built up this huge network of industry leaders that we were able to tap into for guidance,” said team member Crystal Van Wyk. Van Wyk, herself, comes from an art background, with experience in sculpture and photography, as well as marketing and branding from her time working at Nike.

“In a way, I feel like art and business have a lot in common,” said Van Wyk. “You start with a concept and all you have are some preliminary sketches at the beginning. The rest is a series of experiments to try and bring that vision to life.”

But while their strengths allowed their team to thrive in developing the business aspects of their concept, they realized they needed additional input from the world of textile and material science to make their idea truly viable. Though they were unable to find someone to join their team full-time, through connections at the Center for Entrepreneurship, the team was nevertheless able to receive guidance from a number of experts. “The Director of Student Innovation at the Center for Entrepreneurship, Juan, even matched us with a professor all the way across the world in Finland,” said Van Wyk. “It was truly a community effort, and we’ve learned so much as a result. At this point, we feel like we’ve learned so much we joke that our second degree is in textiles.”

Overall winners of the Cleantech Challenge, Gener8, reaped similar benefits from their interdisciplinary approach at a cleantech solution. Made up of students from mechanical engineering, biophysics, synthesis chemistry, computer science, and physical chemistry, the team came together across multiple time zones and universities to develop an ethanol-based fuel cell capable of efficiently generating green and renewable energy.  

“It took a little bit for us to figure it out, but when we sat down and thought about the scope of what we wanted to do, we realized it was going to require all of us working together at the table,” said team member, Karelley Ramirez Gonzalez. “We all bring our strengths, but we also bring our limitations and blind spots. It’s in the intersections of what I don’t know and what someone else does, where the magic happens.”

As a student of chemistry and physics, Ramirez Gonzalez found herself constantly learning new skills and considering new approaches because of her teammates and mentors from different backgrounds. Too, she has seen how her own learning and skillset have enabled her to help teammates solve problems as well, even with a lack of personal experience in their domains. “As a chemist, there were things I knew which I realized I could apply to their knowledge base. I had never built an instrument before, but when our chief engineer had a problem controlling the temperature of his prototype, I was able to suggest a chemical solution for how to keep the circuits from shorting out.”

In the end, Van Wyk and Ramirez Gonzalez hope that their experience of cross-disciplinary cooperation will be instructional for all those who follow in their footsteps, not only in future competitions but in the greater battle against climate change. To really make an impact, it’s going to take more than a few clever ideas. It’s going to require input and participation from all of us.

“Being interdisciplinary doesn’t necessarily just mean finding someone from a different major, but finding someone who knows and does and thinks different things. As a scientist, this experience has taught me to be on the lookout for people outside my own field,” said Ramirez Gonzalez.  I’m now thinking about who I can help in the future and whose perspective I need to balance my own.”

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