Students team up to ‘hack’ global pollution



Last weekend, nearly 100 students from 10 private and public high schools across the state put their heads together at Rocky Hill Country Day School to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems – pollution.

At the second annual RI Hack for Global Good, the race was on. Teams of six to eight students had just nine hours to outline, prototype and present an idea to combat water, air, soil, light or noise pollution.

Rocky Hill seniors Ben Pogacar and Courtlandt Meyerson organized the event, which emphasized ideas and teamwork rather than the technical skills and computer programming that typical hackathons promote.

“What we noticed about hackathons especially is that from the name ‘hack,’ you get this sense that it’s going to be some sort of coding thing. We wanted to make it more about the solutions and bring in students with all different sorts of interests,” Pogocar said.

The pair founded the hackathon last year after they could not find one to participate in themselves. That’s when they approached Meg Stowe, their school’s director of innovation, for guidance.

“I was impressed because they came to me with very clear goals. Right from the beginning they wanted to work with kids from other schools who were different from them, who don’t have the same opportunities,” she said.

Leading up to this year’s hackathon, organizers reached out to students at Hope High School, a large public high school that is now in the midst of the state takeover of Providence Public Schools. Rocky Hill provided transportation for Hope students who wanted to attend.

Omayra Corporan, a junior at Hope who works on weekends, asked for the day off to participate in the hackathon.

“Work was a barrier for me, but I managed to come. Other students don’t have that flexibility,” she said.

When Hope junior Ambar Tavarez, 17, arrived on the pristine waterfront Rocky Hill campus, she felt intimidated. The feeling soon passed though. After she started meeting other students, she was at ease.

“They created this welcoming environment, where the other students and mentors were so friendly and would listen to what we had to say,” she said.

The hackathon was transformative for Tavarez, who feels that Dominican students like herself are underestimated at Hope.

“I never get to share my ideas with other people, like we did here. Dominicans and Latinos face low expectations at my school, even though the majority of students are very intelligent and very creative. There just aren’t opportunities to apply their intelligence. At a school here like Rocky Hill, they can, and at this event we could express that, too,” Tavarez said.

As groups worked on projects through the afternoon, ideas materialized on whiteboards. The teams competed for Best Pitch, Global Impact, and Moonshot Idea awards.

One team made up of students from Rocky Hill, Hope, the Wheeler School and Chariho High School is trying to solve the problem of plastic waste that has not traditionally been recyclable. The students came up with the idea when they found that 99 percent of plastic bags end up in landfills and waterways.

According to their presentation, their machine would collect consumable plastics, turn them into compact bricks for reuse and reward points to the collectors through a credit system.

Giselle Virga, 16, from Wakefield attends the Wheeler School. Last year, she was part of a winning team that designed an app so households could compete against their neighbors to save energy. After the hackathon, the students took their idea to Providence, where they became the youngest team ever to participate in the six-week Social Enterprise Greenhouse incubator.

“Now we’re looking to move forward with that by finding someone who can code our app,” she said.

Although some ideas have potential to make an immediate impact, founders Pogocar and Meyerson included the “Moon Shot” award to spur more outside the box thinking. Meyerson took a moment to reflect on the project that won last year’s Moonshot Award.

“I can’t see a world with bioluminescent trees as street lamps, but I also don’t see myself living in a world where there aren’t any coral reefs or glaciers,” he said.

Meyerson never achieved his goal of participating in a hackathon. He was too busy running one. Still, he thinks the experience will prepare him for whatever lies ahead.

“It’s given me skills like public speaking and networking, but it has also completely changed my perspective by making friends and working with people from so many different backgrounds. It’s like the real world,” he said.


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