Amy Hergott (right) and teammates, who won the Risky Business Award at EcoHack. Photo by Victoria Schramm.

EcoHack: Community-inspired innovation

The University of Saskatchewan (USask) recently hosted EcoHack, Saskatchewan’s first environment- and sustainability-focused hackathon.

During the three-day event, local organizations shared the sustainability challenges they had been facing. Interdisciplinary teams of USask students then worked to develop innovative solutions, which they presented to the organizations at the end of the hackathon.

The event was organized by a cross-campus team led by Liz Kuley, the USask Undergraduate Environmental Programs Coordinator.

When asked what sparked the idea for this event, Kuley said, “Saskatoon has a strong network of environment and sustainability champions who work tirelessly to improve our community. EcoHack was my way of connecting the next generation of environmental sector leaders with this network.”

“We are a passionate team of people who believe in our students’ ability to change the world and EcoHack gave us an opportunity to show these students how creative problem solving and enterprising solutions can help boost their careers and improve our world at the same time” she stated.

Kuley was grateful that so many event partners and sponsors invested in this event and helped to make it a reality, including the USask Undergraduate Environmental Programs, School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Saskatchewan Environmental Society, and City of Saskatoon.

Irena Creed, the Executive Director of SENS, was excited for the school to be a partner for EcoHack.

“SENS was eager to sponsor this event because we stand for exactly what EcoHack represents. We aim to give our students exposure to interdisciplinary, problem-oriented, and experience-based graduate and undergraduate learning for our world’s most pressing environment and sustainability issues,” said Creed.

Many SENS students were also keen to participate in EcoHack, such as Amy Hergott, who is completing a Master of Environment and Sustainability degree.

“I’ve seen competitions for engineering, business, and computer science but nothing related to the environment and sustainability,” said Hergott. “I was excited to participate in EcoHack because it allowed me to develop and apply my problem solving skills to real life issues.”

She found it heartening to see everyone come together to face challenges as a community.

“I would recommend EcoHack to everyone,” said Hergott. “It was an amazing opportunity to develop crucial skills like public speaking, creative thinking, and team work, along with networking and forming connections with amazing people.”

Brooke Knutson, an Environment and Sustainability Specialist for Maple Leaf Foods, was one of the business professionals who posed a sustainability problem to the students.

“When I first heard about EcoHack, I knew that it would be a perfect fit with the Maple Leaf Foods sustainability goals,” said Knutson. “I was excited to get an opportunity to engage these bright, innovative students in finding a solution to a real world problem that is a challenge for people throughout the food manufacturing industry.”

“Events such as these are what make the University of Saskatchewan an exceptional place to study and help establish a network of individuals who are passionate about helping the environment,” said Knutson.

She was happy to see participants benefit from the experience personally, while also contributing to the betterment of the environment.

“I will definitely be participating next year and, as a USask alumna, I am incredibly impressed with the work that the university is doing to promote sustainability,” she added.

Before EcoHack had even finished, its event organizer was being asked to make it an annual event.

“I’ve already had community partners sign up for next year and had students ask when the next one will be!” stated Kuley.

“Given this level of excitement, we will definitely host EcoHack 2019 next fall to give students an opportunity to innovate new solutions to existing environmental challenges,” she said.

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