As part of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, dozens of student-led teams are innovating solutions to critical quality-of-life barriers around the world. In this series, we learn more about individual teams' efforts to develop solutions that could earn them implementation awards of up to $10,000 at the IDEAS Global Challenge awards ceremony on May 3.
Imagínate is creating opportunities for the “educated unemployable” in Mexico to develop soft skills — such as problem solving, teamwork and communication — that are critical for their success in professional workplace environments. Cole Shaw, a Legatum Fellow and MIT graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, is leading the team, which includes third-year MIT undergraduate Netia McCray, MIT alumna Sivikami Sambasivam ’11 and Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Bruce. Here, Shaw talks about how his team is trying to bridge the disconnect between academia and industry through innovative workshops.
Q. Who are the “educated unemployable” and why are you addressing this group?
A. In Mexico and around the world, you see a lot of youth coming out of university with a degree, but employers don’t think they have the skills to work in a professional environment. There’s a disconnect between what a degree says you’re qualified to do and what industry wants its newly hired employees to be able to do.
When I lived in Mexico, I would talk with university students. They aren’t involved in clubs, and there are very few resources for them to work in teams outside of their departments or take courses that are cross-listed. Even knowing people outside of their departments can be tough. If you go to any university in the U.S., there are all sorts of things like student clubs, governments and organizations that promote interpersonal skills, but those opportunities are very limited in Mexico. Some top-notch universities have these opportunities, but I would hazard to say that most do not.
Our team talked to hiring managers in Mexico who said that sometimes students come in, and they have no clue of how to work in a professional environment. They expect someone to hand them their assignments, step-by-step. It’s very different from the academic environment that these students are used to. Just like in the U.S., students who can find internships will get an idea of what this difference is like. We provide an internship-like experience with mentorship and facilitators who help students understand the transition.
Mexico has a fairly large industrial base and a growing educated demographic. So, Mexican society has a growing need to provide employees for industry. We think there’s an opportunity to help facilitate the connection.
Q. What’s innovative about the solution that your team is proposing?
A. In January during IAP, our team traveled to Mexico and worked with students from four different universities. All of them, including the professors that we worked with, said that they had never had a class that was quite so interdisciplinary and that worked outside of their departments. They had never even worked with students outside of their own universities.
Our program is innovative because we’re coming in as a third party, so we don’t have the bureaucracy of a university. We don’t have to deal with internal issues, and we don’t have to change the official curriculum. We’re a third party acting as a bridge between universities and industry, which is organizationally something that’s not been done before in the way that we’re trying to implement it.
One big component of our program is that we try to get the students focused on the social aspect. There are other programs around the world that focus specifically on IT or business. We’re focused more on design and general skills, while working to implement some social good in what our students do and getting them to be aware of the problem. For example, this summer, we’ll be working with an NGO and a research center to try and improve greenhouse production in general in Mexico. Greenhouse production can mean a lot of things, but the NGO is going to let a student team from our program work on one of those aspects. If that pans out, that could be something that the NGO could scale up.
It’s a paradigm shift. We’re talking with an organization that manufactures solar ovens in Mexico. It would be Mexican students helping out with a Mexican organization. We’re trying to take the social design for change or good to the local places where they are closer to the issue. Every major university in the U.S. works on issues with partners overseas, but we’re trying to get the students overseas to see these issues and work on them in their local communities.
Q. If you win the award, what would your plans for the next year be?
A. One big thing is to do something a lot more substantial in the summer this year. We’d like to have more students, maybe 30 students, go through a really intense six-week workshop. With the money, the students would be able to build more robust and tangible prototypes, and this would then allow them to make better cases to their stakeholders about how their solutions could be more viable to continue on after the workshop.
We’ll also continue to address some of our challenges. One of the challenges we’re facing is scale, in terms of finding good partners, including schools, businesses, NGOs and local and federal governments. If we’ve got workshops in two or three different cities, we’ll need to find good partners who can run these in each place.
We really want these students to get skills like problem solving, teamwork, leadership, communication and creativity. In general, we think these things are of interest to the organizations that want to hire these kids as future employees, but I think it’s hard because they aren’t very tangible skills. You can’t give a student a degree and say “now this student knows how to do this,” like with a differential equation. The award would help us to continue to address this challenge by developing curriculum and evaluation tools.