For nearly 10 years, Pickering College has participated in an annual challenge to tackle a real-world problem without a solution, hosted by the Global Ideas Institute (GII), an initiative of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
This year’s team, comprised of Grade 12 students Vanessa Gardner, Emily Golding, Brooke Baker, Rachel Sorbara and Grade 11 student Madeleine Rickman, was tasked with solving the issue of plastics and plastic waste in the world. With the project’s direction entirely left up to each team, our students decided to tackle microplastics in farmed produce and, bucking convention, examined their issue at the local level with an eye to potentially scaling it up globally.
“They started thinking about how plastics enter the water table,” says Kim Bartlett, Director of Teaching and Learning at Pickering College. “Farmers growing food, taking water from that water table and spraying it onto produce. Therefore, the red peppers that you buy in the grocery store have already been coated in microplastics. So the team actually designed a filter system that could be put on to irrigation systems, using graphene and adaptors, so it’s actually able to filter out the microplastics from the water when it’s being irrigated.”
The team more than did its homework. In addition to their research, they consulted with experts including PC alumnus Nick LaValle ‘14 who works in the environmental sphere and has founded a start-up company to remove microplastics from freshwater rivers and lakes. They also spoke with the owner of a local market garden farm who was excited by what the PC team proposing. He even offered to pilot it for them if they actually built the product, which the team calculated would cost approximately $50 per unit.
Armed with a slick presentation that included a video (with help from Justin Kim, Grade 12), a product logo (with help from Lili Strawbridge, Grade 12), and a proper engineering poster, our students blew the panel of judges away.
Panelist Paula Gallo, Project Manager at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, says what really struck people about the PC team’s presentation was that it focused on working out the details in a local context with local partners first, before making the leap of applying it globally.
“There was a lot of murmuring about them doing a fantastic job! The girls seemed really confident in how they were presenting their product … like they had really thought it through,” says Gallo. “They came up with a very practical solution - it was innovative in the sense that I don’t think anyone had thought of it in the room - and they were able to answer questions really well.’
Fellow panelist, Kris Hornberg who is the Manager, Program & Strategic Initiatives with Solid Waste Management Services for the City of Toronto adds, “I think that there is a viability for this type of product in the market. For one, I believe some farmers, perhaps those that are geared more towards eco-products, may want to include this as part of helping their produce stand out from the crowd. From a personal perspective, I take my own health very seriously, and if I knew a certain farmer had a more sophisticated filtration option, I would likely make the effort to find produce from them.”
Bartlett credits the Global Leadership Program for preparing the team so well, because of the work PC students do in learning to tackle problems, to think interdisciplinarily and their training in using the tools of integrative thinking.
“Our students are outperforming other students and this is a measuring stick,” says Bartlett. “Even though we don’t receive a gold medal (it’s not a gold-medal type of system, it’s all based on feedback) the polish of their pitch, the quality of their slides and the fact they used Roger Martin’s Play to Win business strategy, just the level of production quality and thoughtfulness is incredible. In nine years, I’ve only had three prototyping projects - or potentials - that were given this level of feedback.”
Hornberg adds, “I often meet with corporate executives who have new garbage-to-gold solutions they would like to pitch, and often even very basic questions I have about these technologies are met with blank stares. The presentation from Pickering was rock solid, well-rehearsed and the level of effort given really made it stand out. Add to that a genuinely innovative idea where farmers assist in becoming part of the solution and I do believe that they are onto something.”
Brooke Baker, Grade 12, says after going through this experience she feels well equipped to work on a large-scale project at the university level.
“The originality of our product allowed for our team to stand out, while our detailed business plan showed its feasibility,” says Baker. “Being able to perform extensive research on a problem I cared about gave me a chance to share my views to the wider community. Having to pitch a solution to a panel gave me great practice that I could now implement in future employment opportunities.”