At Hotchkiss and beyond, students find creative ways to effect change
A Chance Visit to Nepal Inspired Jackie Ryu '17
By Wendy Carlson
When Jackie Ryu first visited Nepal as an eighth grader, he never imagined the experience would lead him to pursue an independent research project on climate change in the Himalayas.
"I just thought I would tag along with my sister," said Ryu. "She was on a service trip, and I thought, 'I'll come and have fun.'"
But Ryu quickly became attached to the culture and the people. A computer science wiz, he volunteered to teach children how to use laptops; they, in turn, helped him hone his soccer skills. Instead of staying at home in South Korea, he spent the next five summers in Nepal working with volunteer groups, helping to renovate schools and teaching English.
When Ryu returned to Nepal in 2015, a few months after a major earthquake had struck, he began to fully comprehend how ill-prepared the country was in the face of a natural disaster. Extreme rainfall exacerbated the severity of the quake, which killed nearly 9,000 people and flattened entire towns. The government's lack of disaster management and poor infrastructure made a tragic situation even worse.
Meanwhile, glaciers in the region are melting at an accelerated rate, causing flash flooding, landslides, water depletion, habitat loss, and poor soil conditions. Ryu also saw firsthand how severe weather trends were impacting the country's agriculture. The previous summer, he stayed with a farm family who had lost their crops during a particularly intense monsoon season. In Kathmandu, he helped rebuild demolished buildings. But when he returned to Hotchkiss, he started wondering how he could continue to help the country while he was thousands of miles away.
"I liked computer science, and so I thought maybe I could reach out to a mentor at a university and do something scientific on climate change that might be useful long- term," he said.
Jackie Ryu '17
He wrote to environmental science departments at numerous universities, seeking a mentor for a project on climate change in Nepal. Ethan Coffel, a Ph.D candidate at Columbia University who was studying climate change in South America, agreed to oversee the project. Ryu used computer data models to produce projected changes in mean and extreme temperature and precipitation in the country. His findings were alarming; if the temperature continued to increase over the next 50 years, it would melt all the Himalayan glaciers, ravaging the tourism industry, which is Nepal's largest source of revenue.
Ryu's paper was accepted by the European Geosciences Union, which invited him to present at its 2015 general assembly in Vienna. But school was in session, so Ryu declined the offer and continued to work on his project, adding material on the impact of his projections on Nepal's society and economy. Last January, he presented his revised paper at the International Conference on Technological Advances in Climate-Smart Agriculture and Sustainability in Kathmandu. The conference brought together about 400 scientists, researchers, professors, environmentalists and conservationists from more than 20 countries, including Nepal, India, China and Pakistan. Ryu met the president of Nepal, Bidya Devi Bhandari, and leaders of the country's top departments. Most of the other presenters had earned their masters and Ph.Ds; many assumed Ryu held those degrees as well.
"And here I was, just a kid in high school," said Ryu.
At Hotchkiss, Ryu had been selected as one of 400 semi-finalists in the 2016 Siemens Competition, the nation's premier competition in math, science and technology for high school students. But few knew about Ryu's climate research. David Thompson, director of international programs, said he only discovered that Ryu had presented his research on climate change at a national conference because Ryu was the captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team at Hotchkiss, which Thompson coaches.
"I was amazed to learn this, and even more amazed that he had been to Nepal for multiple summers, and that he had found a mentor on his own at Columbia University to guide his research," said Thompson. "At school, he just went about doing the things that he is interested in without trumpeting his accomplishments."
As for Ryu, the experience has encouraged him to pursue a career in environmental engineering. This fall, he'll be a freshman at Columbia, where he received a scholarship to continue studying climate change in Nepal.
"My experience in Nepal has really shaped what I want to study, and how I can help people adapt and prepare for climate change," he said.
Two Seniors Use Design Thinking to Solve a Community Problem
By Chelsea Edgar
Seniors Olivia DiMichele and Zoe Bazos set out to solve what, at first, seemed like a simple problem: provide locally grown food to families who can't afford to shop at pricey farmers markets. But, as they soon found out, there's no such thing as a simple problem. DiMichele and Bazos were both students in Adam Lang's Design for Social Impact class, an elective Lang designed and offered for this first time last spring. In this course, students use the principles of design thinking — a creative, analytical, and experimental process — to tackle a problem that affects the local community.
"I don't expect them to solve these problems, but I want them to apply this creative method to an issue that they care about," Lang said. "This course is all about process. The design-thinking process is non-linear and can involve many stops, starts, and re-boots."
Indeed, it did: As DiMichele and Bazos quickly discovered, improving low-income residents' access to locally produced, high-quality meats and produce requires more than just good intentions and a few extra bushels of apples.
"The problem is connected to other issues in the community, like income inequality," DiMichele said. The median household income in Salisbury, CT, is $66,621, while the median home price hovers around $400,000. For many residents, affordable housing — let alone costly organic fruits and vegetables — seems out of reach.
They reached out to members of the local community, including Fairfield Farm Manager Ellie Youngblood '10 and Jenny Hansell, executive director of North East Community Center in Millerton, NY, to get their perspectives. From those conversations, the duo zeroed in on their "problem statement" — a one-sentence summary of the issue they wanted to target. They concluded that there's a gap between local farmers and local families, most of whom can't afford to participate in CSAs or shop at farmers markets. So Bazos and DiMichele decided to come up with a way to bridge the divide.
First, they explored the possibility of taking leftover produce that farmers can't sell to restaurants and donating it to local families. But that approach didn't address the whole issue: either the farmers themselves would need to coordinate the donation, which didn't seem practical, or DiMichele and Bazos would have to create a delivery system. They scrapped that idea and pivoted to another one: a farm incubator, modeled after Glynwood in Cold Spring, NY, in which young farmers would lease land in exchange for donating a portion of their harvest to a local food pantry.
To vet the concept, DiMichele and Bazos conducted a "vapor test," a way of gauging interest in a project before investing the time and money to get it off the ground. They created an Instagram account for the farm incubator and got 123 followers within the first few hours — a sign that there could be a market for their idea.
DiMichele and Bazos graduated this spring, so they didn't get a chance to implement the project, but they're committed to following up over the summer with the people who helped them along the way. For DiMichele in particular, the experience furthered her interest in sustainable food, which she'll pursue through a gap year at Garden City Harvest, a community agriculture program in Missoula, MT. Both DiMichele and Bazos say that the course has taught them a lot about the surrounding community — and the challenges of addressing a multifaceted problem.
"I've learned how interdependent this community is," DiMichele said. Bazos agreed: "It's really important to look beyond the Hotchkiss bubble and become aware of what's going on."