Putting Classroom Theory into Practice

Design Thinking for Acar Challenge

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

“The idea was to bring a lot of expertise from the corporate world to help young social start ups,” says Fred Rose when asked about his motivation for founding the Acara Institute two years ago. As part of the Minnesota University’s Institute on the Environment, Acara has developed a classroom curriculum for universities in the U.S. and in India that challenges students to think creatively about how to use private businesses to solve pressing global issues such as hunger and poverty. But instead of the semester culminating in an exam or a paper, Acara provides students the necessary tools to turn their best class work into reality.

“There is a lot of energy in the business world and in young people,” says Fred, “that is being directed towards providing services or materials that help to make the world a better place. I wanted to help provide young business students with better tools to help them make a profit through solving some of these global challenges we face today.”

As part of their studies, students enrolled in Acara’s program compete in the Acara Challenge. Participating universities in the U.S. are partnered with universities in India, creating teams of 15 students who will work together to come up with a business plan to address a specific problem chosen by Acara. “Last year’s competition theme was clean water for cooking and this year is on food and water security,” explained Fred. “This year, basically, we are asking the question,’ how are we going to feed 9 billion people without destroying everything?’”

Winning teams are given the opportunity to attend the and to see if their model can become reality. Working with experts in the field and on the ground, students can refine their business plan and prepare for an actual launch. “There are always assumptions about what will or won’t work,” says Fred. “Even the best models may be based on incorrect assumptions and it’s incredibly valuable for students to view that first hand. They also get to meet their international teammates in person and discuss their project’s future potential.”

A number of projects from past years have even moved beyond that final assessment stage, earning attention from funders. “We have some prototype businesses that have gotten started and received some funding,” says Fred. “Currently there is a program on the ground that is developing drip irrigation systems to sell and improve farm water management, and a program that is using bio digesters to create fuel from dairy cow waste.”

But the success of these projects would not be possible, says Fred, without the partnerships between the students in the U.S. and in India. “The idea is that the students in India have to do the field work because they are already on the ground. They go out and conduct interviews and observe so that they can create a business model with the people in the U.S. that will actually work on the ground.”

The partnership also helps to ensure that the business models are sustainable. “The long term sustainability of any of these projects has to be with the students in India,” says Fred. “It’s pretty arrogant to think you can sit here in a classroom in Minneapolis and fix these hugely complicated problems half way around the world.”

To read more about how innovations in the classroom are helping to improve livelihoods and alleviate hunger and poverty, see: Using Digital Technology to Empower and Connect Young
Farmers, How to Keep Kids Down on the Farm, Listening to Farmers, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture, and Taking the Classroom to the Field.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 19 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Nigeria this week, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.

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