Grebel students address helplessness with innovation through the Pandemic Challenge

Monday, August 24, 2020

At the University of Waterloo, innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities are around every corner. Yet in the Spring semester an opportunity arose to rethink how students can be involved in changemaking. What if UWaterloo could provide a space for students to apply their innovative and systems-change mindsets to a real-life, ever-changing problem: the COVID-19 pandemic?

69 teams opted into the Pandemic Challenge in early May, with 25 teams applying to compete for the Pandemic Challenge Fund. Students had just over two months to brainstorm, prepare, research, and solidify their ideas, all while the pandemic posed significant challenges to the well-established pitch competition model at UWaterloo. Students from every faculty and year of study participated in the Challenge, drawing support from Concept by Velocity, the Problem Lab, GreenHouse, Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business, and UW Library

A team made up of Grebel students decided to use the Pandemic Challenge to address one of the most frustrating social issues that the pandemic has highlighted: protecting and providing for those in Long Term Care (LTC) homes. This problem, which team member Seth Morrison noted has existed long before the pandemic, presented logistical, political, and social challenges. Working on a solution meant that the team was not only keeping track of outbreak and case numbers, but they were also in tune with daily government briefings, empathizing with families, and scouring for emerging research. As team member Jonah Thiessen shared, “Our research gave us the opportunity to learn more about the COVID situation in long-term care homes specifically, which helped me empathize with those who have to deal with that situation.”

Through weeks of virtual brainstorming sessions and online coaching with Centre for Peace Advancement Director Paul Heidebrecht, the team developed their pitch for Caregiver Protection Training (CPT). CPT aims to develop a program for LTC residents’ family members and caregivers to receive certification in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) protocol. CPT is a creative way to improve the connections between LTC residents and their care circles, while prioritizing the health of vulnerable and high-risk groups. CPT would also reduce the burden on LTC staff, and is applicable for the prevention and protection of high-risk groups even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. CPT aims to work alongside governments and LTC homes to ensure consistency in training while acknowledging that social isolation is a “systemic, provincial, and national” problem.

The Pandemic Challenge differed from the typical pitch competition offered by Concept in the broad spectrum of resources and coaches involved from across the innovation ecosystem. Bringing team members from different faculties and years of study was important for CPT’s diverse approach, as well as receiving support along the way. As team leader Grace Wright describes, Paul’s coaching was vital to the team’s success, “because our solution was policy focused, having his insight and guidance on how to develop our solution and what things we may need to consider was extremely helpful as it helped us narrow our scope and really focus our efforts.”

While the team did not win the Pandemic Challenge, the ability to work collaboratively on a solution during a season of overall hopelessness was rewarding. As team member Elaina Mohr described, “I found working on a response to the pandemic a helpful mental switch from feeling helpless, to realizing there are so many opportunities to offer ideas.” COVID-19 not only challenges the comforts that we, as a society, take for granted, but also offers up space to reimagine new systems that may be more beneficial in the long term. Students are overwhelmingly prepared and eager to take on these new challenges, and embracing a collaborative, interdisciplinary and systems-thinking mode of innovation like the Pandemic Challenge allows their ideas to thrive.

Caregiver Protection Training (CPT) was created by team leaders Grace Wright and Joshua Garcia-Barrios, and team members Elaina Mohr, Seth Morrison, Jonah Thiessen, and Sid Roth.

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