University program funds and supports student projects

The projects work to address societal and environmental challenges.

Natalie Rademacher

Last month, University of Minnesota graduate student Michele Girard won a grant to continue funding a project she has been working on for years: building a sustainable water system that provides clean drinking water for a community in Haiti.

The University’s Acara program in the Institute on the Environment helps students like Girard address societal and environmental challenges. Students at the University can compete in the annual Acara Challenge and receive funding and mentorship on projects they are pursuing.

The 2019 winners were announced last month, and students are now working with experts and faculty to implement their ideas. New scholarships became available this month for some students to help make conducting this kind of work more affordable.

“This is a competitive way to get students to go out and work on these problems,” said Fred Rose, co-founder of Acara.

Winners of the annual Acara Challenge receive up to $5,000 in funding for their project in addition to coaching from Acara faculty and experts.

Acara mentors work closely with students on each project to make sure ideas are plausible and that things like sustainability and ethics are being considered.

“[Acara mentors] are good at getting you to think about how long-term this will affect the community you are working in,” Girard said.

Through the mentorship, students are also taught business and design skills, along with how to collaborate with people across disciplines and cultures.

“There are a set of skills you should know if you want to have an impact in the world. With Acara, we are helping students get to a place to do that,” Rose said.

Even after graduating and no longer working on his project, Graham Ambrose continues to meet with and receive guidance from Acara faculty. Ambrose competed in the Acara Challenge in 2017 while he was a master’s student at the University. His project proposed building a tool to help local small-scale farmers.

He said the skills and principles he learned through Acara are valuable and he continues to use them in his other work.

“Our ultimate goal is to teach people the skills and questions you need to ask to lead change,” said Megan Voorhees, co-director of Acara. “It is important to have a context where we can tell students they can do it. We believe in you.”

While the Acara Challenge can provide funding for a project, being able to afford to spend time on these initiatives prevents some students from being able to pursue them, Voorhees said.

New scholarships, funded by a $5 million donation from Ecolab, were announced this week which can make the Acara Challenge more accessible and affordable for students, she added.

“Not all students can compete in the Acara fellowship because the money is only for their project. Not every student can afford to spend a summer not being paid while they work on a cool project,” Voorhees said.

One of the scholarships provides funding to undergraduate students working on sustainability leadership projects, which Voorhees said could allow more students to participate in Acara.

“We want to make sure all students can do this,” Rose said.