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The multicultural and diverse team of ThriVe won AVP’s challenge titled Reimagining Higher Education in the sustainability-themed hackathon Solve the SDGs organized by AVP and Junction. While the hackathon brought them together, their solution helps students connect with each other and with their professors in a post-Covid, hybrid learning environment. We had a chat with the team to learn more about their solution, the hackathon experience, and their plans for the future.

The past year or so has not been easy for university students. Or, well, for anyone really. While online courses offer some benefits, the upsides are easily countered out by drawbacks such as reduced social interaction and less interactive teaching methods, especially on teamwork-based courses. To come up with new ways to design education for a world that’s slowly moving out of the shadow of Covid19, AVP asked the participants of Solve the SDGs hackathon to reimagine higher education with us — and Anete Skrastina, Emily Oreste, Jule Meier-Merziger, Radia Mran and Sonja Schreiner took on the challenge.

I joined the hackathon to learn more about SDGs and to find new ways to improve the world.

Emily, Jule and Sonja are all from Germany, studying in the International Master’s Programme in Advanced Materials for Innovation and Sustainability, or AMIS, which is also available at Aalto University. For them, participating in the hackathon was a mandatory part of the AMIS program, but it didn’t feel forced. “There’s a heavy emphasis on sustainability in AMIS. After a good experience last time, the program decided to make this hackathon a part of our studies,” Emily explains, “and we’re glad they did!” Anete, who is from Latvia, is studying her first year in South Korea, taking international studies in development and cooperation, with a big focus on SDGs. She heard of the hackathon from a classmate and decided to apply. “I had just had a course on SDGs, and I was really interested in the topic. I joined to learn more about them and to find new ways to improve the world,” she says. Their fifth team member, Radia, is from France and unfortunately couldn’t make the interview.

The ThriVe team members

Anete, Emily, Jule and Sonja took on AVP’s challenge at Solve the SDGs. Missing from the picture is the fifth team member Radia.

Only Jule and Sonja knew each other before the hackathon, so the team was mostly formed during the team-building phase of the event. “We were a bit lost at first, but it was really easy to talk with everyone during team forming, and things started to come together,” Sonja says. In the team building session, held in gather.town, participants could talk with other people looking for a team in different virtual rooms, each dedicated to one challenge. It was a new experience for all the team members — all of them hackathon first-timers — but in the end, they all enjoyed it and are more than happy with the team they brought together.

The team is very diverse, regarding their backgrounds and previous experience in working with SDGs. The German trio comes from a technical background, and of them, Jule is the only one who was familiar with the SDGs before the hackathon, but even she hadn’t worked with them. Anete, on the other hand, is learning about topics such as poverty and migration, and is immensely familiar with SDGs and their sub-goals. What brings them all together, though, is the concrete experience in doing group work under heavy Corona restrictions — which is why they decided to work on the AVP challenge. “We’re actually living the problem right now, so we wanted to make things better for ourselves as well as every other student who’s struggling,” they say. Here, the diversity of the team really helps; having experienced the practices of several different countries, they already had a broader understanding of the topic and different practices than a single-country team. “I did my bachelor’s in the US, so altogether we have experienced education in five different countries. That really helped with the challenge,” Emily says.

We wanted to make things better for ourselves as well as every other student who’s struggling.

Despite their differences — or maybe because of them — the team worked well together, and they say one of their biggest problems was having too many ideas for a two-minute video. “The mentoring on Saturday really helped,” Emily says,” we got good guidance and were able to narrow our focus.” What comes to the online setting, the team didn’t feel like it slowed them down much — a hackathon is very different from regular course work, after all. “We were in Zoom basically the whole time, since everyone had booked the whole weekend,” they explain. One tiny problem was the time difference between Anete, who was in South Korea, and the rest of the team, all in Europe. “I pretty much stayed up the first night before agreeing to get some rest,” Anete says laughing. After the initial ideation phase, however, everyone was freer to work according to their own schedules, and no more sleepless nights were required.

The result of hard work and valuable mentoring was ThriVe — a digital platform that helps students connect with each other and with their professors in a post-Covid, hybrid learning environment. The platform includes virtual spaces that can range from a classroom to campus-wide to facilitate collaboration and getting to know other students, a tool to book meeting times with team members and professors online or offline, and means for professors to give feedback to student teams. Even though the different aspects of the platform are not new, the novel way ThriVe combines them in one place is what distinguishes it from existing solutions and other entries in the hackathon — which is why it secured first place in its challenge.

Another criterion in assessing the entries was implementation possibility. Everyone in the team would like to see ThriVe realized, but they don’t have the resources or programming experience to make it happen themselves. They do hope, however, that at least some parts of it could be built when Emily, Jule and Sonja come to Aalto University in the fall for the second year of the AMIS program. They look forward to more teamwork and will be taking AVP courses such as Startup Experience, so it’s possible they can find some missing links to their team and make ThriVe real. “I’d really love for this kind of platform being made. I’ve been really lost here in South Korea, nothing was explained and I didn’t know anyone. ThriVe could really help new students connect with others and get to know their campus,” Anete says. She won’t be reuniting with the team at Aalto but will continue her international studies and learning about SDGs for three more years in South Korea.

Don’t be afraid that you have to work over the weekend. It’s so fun it’s easily worth it!

All in all, the team is very happy with their hackathon experience even if ThriVe wouldn’t ever become a real product. They got the chance to learn about sustainability from new perspectives, work on a topic they were passionate about and meet many interesting and talented people — such as each other. “It was our first hackathon, and I was quite stressed at first. But meeting this group and working with them made the event so much fun,” Jule says. They all emphasize that being a first-timer doesn’t matter and that anyone can contribute to the problems as long as they’re interested and willing to work hard. “Just go for it, it’s going to be alright! Even if it sounds scary, new experiences can teach you a lot, and you might learn something really useful,” Anete says. “And don’t be afraid that you have to work over the weekend,” Emily adds,” it’s so fun it’s easily worth it!”