In March, students from four Pittsburgh area high schools came together for a two day Water Design Challenge. Hosted at the University of Pittsburgh‘s William Pitt Union and supported by a Hive Grant from The Sprout Fund, students were asked to brainstorm to raise awareness about real world water crises. Emily Stimmel shared this story on the Kidsburgh blog.

The problem: raising awareness about real world water crises. The problem-solvers: 55 students in grades nine through 12 from four local high schools.

In March students from Chartiers Valley, Elizabeth Forward, McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon high schools participated in a 2-day Water Design Challenge at University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union. The activities were designed to inspire students to think as local and global citizens and consider the social and environmental implications of something most of us take for granted—water.

Though the project was multidisciplinary in scope incorporating social studies, world language, science and technology–and drawing faculty and students from all four schools–it was pioneered by Mt. Lebanon High School social studies teacher Tina Raspanti. After reaching out to Veronica Dristas, the assistant director of outreach at Pitt’s Global Studies Center, for help in developing a global studies program geared to high schoolers, she felt inspired.

“She told me to dream big,” Raspanti says. So, with a team of likeminded Mt. Lebanon High School teachers, Raspanti approached The Sprout Fund for a grant from its Hive Fund for Connected Learning and the group immediately got to work setting the project in motion.

With funding, Raspanti and her team were able to cover the costs of food, transportation and overnight accommodations offering an “equal playing field for all school districts.” Because no single school was responsible for footing the bill, students from the four schools had equal access to the Water Design Challenge leading to a more diverse, innovative pool of ideas. “It was great to see how they melded together,” says Raspanti, noting that “think globally, act locally” became the teams’ shared motto.

Students engaged in brainstorming sessions and evaluated their ideas using the concepts of human-centered design thinking championed by the event’s facilitator Pete Maher of LUMA Institute. Ultimately, the judges selected two winners—one presenting a local solution and the other a global one.

Make it Rain, the winner in the category of local solutions, promoted a rain barrel system that offers tax credits to residents who use it to water their lawns, encouraging conservation through financial incentives. In the global category, Women 4 Water created a detailed website describing how far women in developing nations walk to retrieve potable water. The average distance was six kilometers, so the all-female team chose a 6K race as the vehicle for raising awareness of the issue while generating funds to support these women.

Students weren’t instructed to use specific tools or methods for awareness-raising, but they naturally gravitated towards social media with most of the groups setting up simple websites and mock online fundraising campaigns.

They also weren’t asked to recruit the next cohort of participants, but they’ve eagerly taken on the task. Though the pilot project focused on water, the essential element of the Challenge is uniting a diverse group of students to collaboratively solve a problem. With Water Design Challenge as a model for future Challenges, the teens who participated in the pilot project are brainstorming the next topic and spreading the word to their peers. With additional funding, Raspanti hopes to develop the project into an annual event uniting diverse groups of students from schools across the region.