Spark Challenge hackathon participants discuss sustainability solutions

High school hackers rethink waste management at ASU Spark Challenge

According to recent reports, households, small businesses and public service providers around the world generate over two billion tons of solid waste every year. This includes everything from food and plastics to packaging and electronics.

What happens to our consumer waste once we dispose of it? This oftentimes avoided topic presents a growing challenge for our world and our planet.

More than 20 high school students from across the Phoenix valley convened at SkySong, the Arizona State University (ASU) Scottsdale Innovation Center to explore sustainable solutions for managing consumer waste. The day-long event was hosted by ASU Enterprise Technology as part of its Spark Challenge technical hackathon series. The March 16 event was co-created with Girls in Tech Phoenix, a local chapter of a nationwide group dedicated to supporting women in technology.

“The goals of this hackathon included upskilling our participants in a basic understanding of waste and recycling practices related specifically to the valley and introducing the participants to emerging technology tools that offer new ways to collaborate and enhance creativity in problem-solving,” said Olivia Herneddo, lead experience designer at ASU’s Enterprise Technology and coordinator of all Spark Challenges at ASU.

About the Spark Challenge

Organized in collaboration with Girls in Tech Phoenix co-directors Dr. Nivedita Biyani and Melissa Drake, this Spark Challenge encouraged participants to rethink waste management by bringing together industry leaders and technologists to collaborate on potential ways to mitigate the waste management problem.

Working with Girls in Tech Phoenix and a donation from Google in support of the convening as an International Women's Day event, the event sponsors were also able to waive participants’ ChatGPT Plus licensing fees.

After hearing from local experts frame the challenges around waste management – including Grace Kelly, City of Tempe Energy Manager – students sorted themselves into teams to come up with potential solutions.

Technical subject matter experts were onsite to assist the student teams in using ChatGPT Plus, which was made available to participants. Teams pitched their ideas in under five minutes, with a short Q&A to follow.

Ideas to ignite change

Several ideas surfaced to the top, including a student team that shared an idea for a website that uses a custom GPT to help users find local recycling locations, along with lists of recyclable materials accepted. Another group presented an idea for an app that incentivizes recycling practices through gamification; users could earn points every time they recycled to cash in at a later date.

“The three top proposals were submitted by all-girl, first-time hackathon attendee teams from rural areas around the valley,” Herneddo noted.

According to Biyani, who is also an ASU alumnus, events like the Spark Challenge not only serve as a way for participants to enhance their problem-solving abilities, but also to help instill in them a sense of broader, creative collaboration and confidence.

“Girls in Tech is all about being inclusive in technology spaces, regardless of gender or profession,” said Biyani. “We want to inspire these kids to think more critically about the world around them and their future.”

In addition to this being a mostly women-in-tech-run-and-facilitated sustainability event, Herneddo was pleased by the number of students who participated in the event.

“Students all across Maricopa County were invited, and our reach has gone all the way down to Gila Bend,” said Herneddo. “We really reached all the way to the north and south borders of the ASU community, and we’re really proud of that.”

Many thanks to the contributors who joined. This includes:  

Introductory remarks by:

  • Donna Kidwell, Enterprise Technology Chief Information Security and Digital Trust Officer

Technical support leads:

  • Madhura Ramojwar, from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and an ASU graduate student 
  • Rachel Clark, business analyst for Enterprise Technology
  • Deepak Raju, co-founder and Principal Engineer at Neolight LLC

As well as the esteemed panel of proposal evaluators:

  • Kimberly Clark, Deputy Chief Information Officer Operational Excellence and Digital Transformation at ASU Enterprise Technology
  • Elizabeth Reilley, Executive Director, AI Acceleration at ASU Enterprise Technology
  • Kendon Jung, Manager, FDM FM Zero Waste at ASU