The Impossible Challenge: Northwestern students attempt to solve climate change

    For Northwestern students, nothing is impossible, not even a solution to one of the greatest threats to the modern world. In the Impossible Challenge, launched at the beginning of this academic year, students aim to find solutions to major global issues. This year, they’re addressing climate change.

    Sponsored by the Buffett Institute, the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern and the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the program is based on a step-by-step process for solving global issues, laid out in David Paul’s book, Standards that Measure Solutions: A Guide to Solving 21st Century Problems. The Impossible Challenge is the first step in that process: first cut analysis. This entails analyzing the feasibility of possible solutions across multiple dimensions, taking factors like the economy, politics and the social environment into consideration.

    Jeffrey Strauss, the project manager, and David Paul hope that if the student teams determine that an idea is feasible, someone will pick it up and carry it through the rest of the process.

    “This was always meant to be a foundation program, and not an end in itself,” said Paul.

    According to Paul and Strauss, 48 students are competing this year in nine teams, each composed of students from different majors. Teams are analyzing possible solutions to mitigate climate change in three areas: transportation, energy and food production. Two teams are doing analysis on funding for transitional research, which is the middle ground between basic research and the point at which investors will put money into an idea to make it happen. This is a vital step in implementing innovative solutions to real-world problems, and a step in which many possible solutions are lost due to lack of funding.

    Among the projects are vertical farms growing crops like arugala and kale under LED lights to provide locally grown produce without pesticides, and without emitting greenhouse gases transporting the crops. Another will try to solve the world energy crisis through shared solar farms. A third envisions magnetically levitated driverless cars travelling 187 miles per hour across the country. Others tackle hydrogen fuel cells, a carbon tax, and driverless cars communicating with each other to minimize traffic. 

    The teams will give preliminary presentations to the program’s staff and faculty mentors in late February and their final presentations will be given in May. They will be judged on how well they analyze the feasibility of their solutions. If they overestimate or underestimate political feasibility, for example, they get points taken off.

    This is the first year of the Impossible Challenge program, so no one is quite sure how it will turn out, but Paul and Strauss said they hope to continue it, addressing new global issues each academic year and eventually spreading to other universities.

    “If we let our most brilliant students come up with ideas that they think are practical and give them the opportunity to explore it, I think there will be a tremendous return and help solve the big problems of our world,” Paul said. “But they have to be funded and understood.”


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