Remember last time when you were so engaged and enjoyed what you were doing that it felt timeless, fulfilling – some call it flow. That’s how I feel my last year has been. We are now in the 2nd year of our INSPIRE program, and it’s been an incredible ride! The program has been both an opportunity and a privilege for me to work with, empower and observe students succeed in developing tech solutions for social good. Mentored by industry and academics, students developed technical and social competencies, to tackle problems in the areas of environmental sustainability (i.e. working with middle and high school students for climate change solutions, or helping out parks control excessive visitation, or raising awareness of web browsing digital foot print, or harnessing big data for environmental scanning), social sustainability (making shelters more effective in accommodating the homeless or helping cognitively impaired use technologies). The community and industry partnerships that supported the students’ work have been truly empowering, only matched by the students’ enthusiasm for their projects success. Personally, I have been inspired by their experience – particularly, their genuine interest in developing technologies that were inclusive of their users’ true needs in society. I am proud of these students’ accomplishments – read more on their projects and outcomes here or in our first year INSPIRE report; they are well equipped on their path for social good and positive impact in our society!

As we are getting ready to work with another cohort of students in our 2023 Fall Projects, I reflect here from my observations of the students’ experience and our own journey as a supporting network. This short video highlights students’ incredible experience and successes, and how far they come along – however, it has not been an easy ride

Engaging in teamwork for social good projects provides a unique opportunity for personal growth. Although students can submit their participation in these projects as coop credit, the experience is far beyond any coop they could engage in. Tackling a real world problem is hard to start with, but direct interaction with those involved in and affected by social problems quickly puts the students outside their comfort zone. They often experience hardship in facilitating interviews and focus groups with real end-users of the technologies they try to build, or in validating their ideas or technology prototypes with end users or project stakeholders at large. Working in a team creates an additional layer of struggles – students’ diverse personalities, prior experiences, communication styles or expectations from the project lead to conflictual situations, often met with inexperience or lack of maturity in coping strategies. The final project presentations, however, pictured an incredible growth in students’ ability to adapt to new situations, cope with stressful moments; their confidence and remarkable skills reflected learning and satisfaction in the work of a term; not only were they able to create solutions that were validated and appreciated by their end users (most partner organizations adopted them in their operations) but some of the teams continued to work together for solutions of greater impact.

Key to teaching about inclusive tech is the emphasis on co-design vs. programming It is clear by now that our society demands inclusive technologies. As technologies (software in particular) are more heavily integrated in our daily life, they got to serve the needs of diverse end-users. To build more inclusive technologies, tech development therefore requires a diversity lens, and just programming to a specification is no longer sufficient. We need a paradigm shift that highlights the technologists’ engagement with product users in co-designing and co-creation of solutions. Students in the inspire projects used design thinking methods to ensure an ongoing collaboration with the project stakeholders and end users, listening to their voices and validating assumptions in the field.

Inclusive teams are hard to build but the effort is worthwhile Research shows that adhoc teams take a while to perform well together and our student teams were not an exception. Our teams were diverse on many dimensions, including engineering and software background, ethnicity and year of study. From the beginning, they had to figure out ways to overcome personality conflicts, differences in working and communication styles. However, our approach in training students in empathy-based design methods such as design thinking worked! The empathy we anticipated they would develop in the design process, important to understanding the needs of their users, proved to be the secret ingredient to the team processes too. It helped the students be kinder to each other, and better understand their perspectives in the design process. The diverse teams grew inclusive of its own members; the student became better collaborators, better designers. Our term-long efforts in mentoring, supporting their team processes felt worthwhile, and inspiring!

A heartfelt Thank you! to all our industry and academic supporters. I am deeply grateful to our Executive Team and Ambassadors in the program. We could not do it without your genuine passion for social good and diverse, inclusive teams in engineering and tech.

I can’t wait to see what INSPIRE 2023 Apprentice Garage projects have in store for us!

Published: July 15th, 2023

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