How to Change the World

Two women looking at their phones

SADT is continuing its partnership with renowned social enterprise, How to Change the World.

What happens when you equip the next generation with the digital skills and mindset needed to solve humanity’s biggest issues? You change the world.

That’s why SAIT’s School for Advanced Digital Technology (SADT) is launching How to Change the World — an intensive program challenging students to develop strategic solutions to global problems outlined by the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

After a successful pilot program in spring 2021, this experiential learning workshop is back for fall at no cost to SAIT students — and applications are now open. Kicking off in late October, the intensive five-day workshop spans over a six-week period, ending with an award ceremony in December.

Three SAIT faculty members took part as coaches in the spring session, including SADT’s very own Director of Digital Strategy, Lee Ackerman, alongside instructors Greg Fulmes and Blake Kanewischer from SAIT’s School of Information and Communications Technologies.

Coaches guide students through the process as they work collaboratively to define and solve a real-word problem, receiving feedback from industry experts throughout. At the end of the series, a showcase is held where a panel of judges award prizes for the best solutions — based on both creativity and viability.

Connecting 100 students and 40 industry experts across five continents was no easy feat during a global pandemic — and technology was pushed to its limits. The pilot project became the perfect testing ground to witness how digital tools, skills and literacy can be used to foster global change.

Why SADT joined the movement

It started when SADT’s Chief Catalyst, Jim Gibson, sparked a discussion with fellow Albertan and co-founder of How to Change the World, Jason Blackstock. The program’s goals and tactics clearly aligned with SADT’s mission to leverage digital skills to solve modern problems.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an ideal opportunity for SADT to partner with international organizations and experts at a time when reliance on technology became a basic need. It’s also a chance to highlight the need to become responsible digital citizens — and use technology to advance humanity — while realizing its key role in solving global issues.

Once divided into teams led by coaches, each group must select one of the UN’s sustainable development goals and apply it on a local level. This includes massive global issues such as access to water, education, climate change, poverty, gender equality and sustainability. Each group features a diverse range of participants from various backgrounds, cultures and disciplines.

The spring pilot project included students and industry experts from countries as far as Nepal, Nigeria and the Philippines.

The coaching experience

This program isn’t just for the benefit of students. It’s meant to be transformative, challenging and humbling for coaches as well. With little time to review or assess the problem, leaders are thrown off the deep end so they can guide the teams with curiosity and vulnerability.

“You have to be humble. You can’t have all the answers — even as coaches, you don’t have the answers. That’s an awkward feeling for those of us with grey hair, we’re used to having some of those answers,” explains Blake Kanewischer.

“I learned that changing the world is like eating an elephant, you do it one bite at a time and our young global citizens are taking on the challenge of changing the world with passion, creativity and energy,” says Greg Fulmes. “It’s so exciting to be a small part of it.”

Ackerman recalls working with student Marie Donohoe, who was part of the award-winning group that came up with a local plan to reduce pollution in Montréal.

“Marie was in my group, and I can’t read her comments — because I tear up when I do,” explains Ackerman. Donohoe’s award-winning team focused on reducing climate change in Montréal. Through a community outreach program for six and seven-year-olds, the children were taught to watch and see if delivery drivers turn off their vehicle when dropping off a package.

“This initiative essentially uses the social shaming of drivers to reduce emissions. It influences behavior in a scalable way, and you get a lot of households advocating for change,” said Ackerman.

A healthy collection of digital tools

When trying to virtually organize over 100 people across the world, one thing became clear — a better world needs better digital skills.

Zoom and Microsoft Teams were staples during the early days of the pandemic, but these tools couldn’t meet the demands of a collaborative group solving global problems. There were some digital growing pains along the way as teams pushed programs past their limits.

“Zoom is a nice platform for broadcasting, but it’s not meant for collaboration and building. If you have 100 people on a Zoom call, it’s hard to go in and out of discussions,” says Ackerman. “We also realized some students from other countries don’t have the same infrastructure. Whether it’s joining a call on mute or the bandwidth you’re using — technology can be a challenge at its foundation.”

A new set of digital tools was needed, and the group began to explore different platforms. Discord — a product from the gaming industry that connects gamers through text, audio and video channels — became a useful tool for creating virtual breakout rooms in the spring session.

Each group also had to build digital portfolios using a product called Notion, which is like a mix of Google Docs and Microsoft OneNote — but with more potential for collaboration.

“It was recognizing that if you have the right tool for the right problem, it can help a lot. I was new to Notion and Discord, but could see myself using it in a lot of learning situations. It was spectacular,” explains Ackerman. “We picked it up quickly and so did the students. At the end of the day, it was really healthy and supportive of our learning.”

Jamboard is another platform teams explored — offering a collaborative digital whiteboard for design thinking and brain storming. Familiar tools such as Google Maps also proved to be important.

“Google maps was a great way to break the ice so we could start to learn about each other. When you have 100 students across five continents and 20 plus institutions, it's nice to know where they're coming from — because you might not know where Makoko is,” adds Ackerman.

Feedback from students

SADT asked participants from the spring pilot project to share their thoughts and feedback — and the responses were inspiring.

87% rated the program among their most valuable education experiences, and 91% would recommend the program to their friends or colleagues.

“Having discussions with experts, leaders and my teammates helped my communication skills. It also helped my creative and problem-solving skills, having to think deeply, research and produce solutions to a problem was a rewarding experience,” says India Cyr, How to Change the World graduate.

Program graduates also gain exclusive access to this network of professionals, along with several resume-boosting, skill-building online resources.

Next steps

How to Change the World will be held virtually this Fall session, with the intent to have participants gather in-person for a team showcase moment in December, barring COVID-19 restrictions.

The program is possible thanks to a partnership between SADT and the University College of London, where How to Change the World was founded in 2014.

Applications will still be accepted beyond the Oct. 1 deadline, but due to the high amount of interest, students are asked to apply as soon as possible.