The first Solutionaries Congress was held at Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon, Utah, last week on April 19. The event was a gathering of high school students who presented proposed solutions to some of the world’s pressing problems in competition format similar to a debate meet. In all, 34 students pioneered presenting at the competitive event representing four different high schools in nine teams.
The term “solutionaries” is most closely associated with Zoe Weil, co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education, an international organization devoted to creating a peaceful, just, and sustainable world through education. Ms. Weil forwarded the term in a well-known speech for the TED conference in 2011. Simply put, solutionaries are people who transform unjust, unsustainable, and inhumane systems into ones that are peaceful and healthy for all people, animals, and the environment. The Institute for Humane Education sponsored the event with funding from the Pollination Project, a nonprofit organization that makes seed grants to change-makers across the world.
The winners of the event were from Lone Peak High School with their presentation of how a variety of medical ills can be solved by using research that has come to light with the human genome project. In second place, a team from Carbon High School in Price presented solutions to space allocations due to overpopulation. Another team from Lone Peak High School captured third place with their presentation on using hydrogen fuel to help solve the energy crisis. Other topics from the student teams addressed solutions to the energy crisis by way of space-based solar power, faulty ACT exam paradigms, economic inequality, health insurance, the education crisis, and inhumane treatment of certain peoples in India.
Trophies for the event were commissioned from artist Michael Bingham, an artist in Logan, Utah and also a high school teacher himself in Mountain Crest High School’s art department. They were made from recycled metal and then stuffed with recycled toys like one would find in a fast food meal (and quickly thrown away). The materials and methods of construction seemed to echo the themes of the congress and provided an interesting supporting commentary on the event. “These are the coolest things I have ever seen!” exclaimed one student.
“When we first began planning this event,” explained Dr. David Sidwell, the event’s Director, “we thought students would see a problem in their community like stray dogs or people on the streets, or we thought they might look at a village in Africa and figure out how to clean their water or something. But they thought much bigger! It was kind of fun to see them do so much research and come up with such compelling arguments.”
“I think it was a great experience to look at the world and all its problems and look at how we as a team could come up with a solution,” claimed Madison Alleman, a debate student from Carbon High School, “Usually in debate, we just talk about problems, but in this case, we had to actually come up with a solution.”
Debate coach John Haws from Lone Peak High School felt similarly: “They started solving problems rather than just debate them. They started focusing on how to make a difference.”
“I feel the kids did a tremendous job in putting together the research required to communicate feasible solutions,” said Riquel Dunn, one of the judges. Another judge, Tim Platzek, remarked, “It was pretty dang interesting to see how these kids could take a problem and how to fix it and account for the budget and other resources required.”
Paul Maloy, a debate coach from Legacy Preparatory Academy in Woods Cross, described the method his school took to bring a team down. “I selected only a few students from my large class of kids to represent the school,” he said, “then all the other kids ended up being researchers for this team. They would go find relevant information and do a lot of legwork for the team, and then the team had to sift through all of this material to distill what was needed for the presentation. It was really marvelous to see the teamwork involved.”
The event, the first of its kind, went off well, but not without a few hitches.
“We gave each team 30 minutes to present, but most teams only used 15 – 20 minutes,” explained Dr. Sidwell, “Also, our judges were really great to judge, but an event like this is so objective, we really had to come up with creative ways to score the teams after they presented. In the end, there was only a few points difference between the highest and lowest scoring teams. We felt that was a good sign that we had calculated things pretty well. With any first time event—especially a competitive one—you really have to rely on people’s forgiveness and latitude for things going wrong or going in a direction different from what one would expect. Luckily, everyone was very willing to accommodate new ideas and methods.”
In the end, both the students and the coaches wanted to do it again and look forward to next year. Discussions with the Institute for Humane Education may lead to a national competition in the not too distant future. “We’ll collect critiques and comments from the participants, coaches and judges and come up with an amazing event next year,” promised Cindy Sidwell, a debate coach from Maeser Preparatory Academy and Assistant Director of the event, “This year was really fun, and we learned a lot. Now we can really make it fantastic for the future.”