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Hey! What are the big ideas?
More than two dozen student proposals are rewarded with funding - to support further development, or just help the winners pay for school

| 13 September 2006

Rising to a challenge to design creative strategies to solve campus and world problems, 29 teams of Berkeley students have been awarded more than $100,000 in prize money for their proposals.

Selected from more than 90 submissions in 10 categories, the winning proposals range from the highly local (blueprints for revamping Lower Sproul Plaza) to the pointedly international (a design for improved cook stoves for refugee camps in Darfur), and from those that would introduce innovations in college curricula to those that would have a significant impact on policy in the scientific and technical arenas.

"The quality of the proposals was phenomenal. Their diversity and creativity exceeded all expectations," says Thomas Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology. Kalil is director of the Big Ideas @ Berkeley initiative, which co-sponsored the competition along with the campus chapter of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC).

The "Bears Breaking Boundaries" competition, announced in March, called on students to propose creative ideas in a broad range of subjects, such as science policy, clean energy, neglected diseases, and information technology for society.

"We know that our students have big ideas," Kalil says. "The goal of the competition was to find the students who are passionate about tackling major societal challenges and to give them the resources they need to pursue their vision. I hope this annual competition will empower students to act on their ideals while they're completing their degrees."

Awards for winning proposals range from $937.50 to $10,500. Students may use the cash to advance their ideas or as scholarships for general education expenses. Teams that want to pursue their proposals will get help from Kalil in identifying additional partners and sources of funding.

Using GIS to track the incidence of malaria

A model for predicting malaria outbreaks in India proposed by a team of three students garnered the competition's top monetary award of $10,500. In May the threesome traveled to India, where they worked with scientists from that country's National Institute of Malaria Research to gather data from various sites on factors that can affect populations of mosquitoes, the insects responsible for spread of the disease.

Developing their model back at Berkeley, the team is using geographic information systems (GIS) to correlate its data - including measurements of such factors as altitude, temperature, rainfall, and the presence of ponds, lakes, and rivers - with the incidence of malaria.

"We identified the environmental factors that definitely play a role in malaria outbreaks," says team member Mayuri Panditrao, a graduate student in public health. "Now we're arranging an interview with the Indian minister of health. Our hope is that once we finish the model, he'll adopt our system and use it for the whole country." If that happens, she says, it could help officials in India deploy their limited financial resources for disease prevention or abatement in areas where malaria outbreaks are most likely to occur.

Other members of that team are Prasanth Jeevan, a graduate student in engineering, and Tahir Akbar, a graduate student in public policy.
And an arbor for the plaza?

Among the other winning submissions were these:

. A proposal to create an interdisciplinary academic program to train future business leaders in the field of sustainable energy ($4,000). The overarching goal of this "Center for Energy Innovation" is to accelerate the commercialization of clean-energy technologies that will lower the risk of global warming and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

. A beautification plan for Lower Sproul Plaza that incorporates elements intended to bolster the local economy while fostering a sense of community ($5,000). The plan includes an arbor, an inclined lawn, a stage, and activities and programs that would create a lively urban-plaza experience.

. A proposal for policies to manage the environmental and health risks of nanotechnologies ($1,000). These pre-emptive policies would safeguard people and the environment from any potentially harmful applications of the new technology while securing advancement of research and beneficial applications in the field.

. A feasibility study that could lead to the design and construction of a pilot co-generation gasification plant ($5,000). The facility would re-route the City of Berkeley's solid sewage, waste, un-recyclables, and plant debris to produce electricity, ethanol, and fertilizer.

Modest resources, big accomplishments

The major sponsor of the competition, the Big Ideas @ Berkeley initiative, was established in 2005 to encourage and support efforts by undergraduate and graduate students at Berkeley to address challenges in such arenas as global public health, sustainable development, and the development of sources of clean energy.

"Students can often accomplish a great deal with modest resources," Kalil says. "The Big Ideas initiative is meant to provide them with some of those resources, such as project funding, mentoring, introductions to potential corporate and nonprofit partners, and advice on marketing, communications, and fundraising."

The initiative received its initial funding from the Omidyar Network, an investment group created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

In addition to the Big Ideas initiative and ASUC, the Bears Breaking Boundaries competition was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, the College of Letters and Science's Division of Biological Sciences, the Center for New Media, and the Center for Responsible Business. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory sponsored the competition's solar-fuels category.

A fact sheet listing all winning proposals and the monies allocated to them is at bigideas.berkeley.edu/BBBContest/bbb-factsheet-sept6.pdf.