Sagicor Visionaries Challenge for Caribbean High School Students


Dr. Maya Trotz is an Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida. She is currently on sabbatical with the Caribbean Science Foundation in Barbados.

Sagicor, the Caribbean Science Foundation and the Caribbean Examinations Council have partnered on the Sagicor Visionaries Challenge for secondary school students, which launched this year in Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. As a visiting research scientist with the Caribbean Science Foundation who is on sabbatical this year from the University of South Florida, I have had the privilege of working on this challenge which aims to: boost institutional capacity in Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in secondary schools in the Caribbean; ignite interest among youth for innovation in STEM in an effort to build and integrate sustainable communities throughout the Caribbean; and integrate knowledge gained from formal and informal education to enable tomorrow’s leaders to build a more sustainable Caribbean.

We have partnered with the various Ministries of Education and run sensitization workshops with secondary school principals and science and mathematics teachers in the 12 countries participating in the Sagicor Visionaries Challenge. Since October 6th, 2012, I have personally visited 50 high schools in 8 different countries, working with students from 1st through 6th forms. I have even worked with students at the community colleges who are sitting the Caribbean Examinations Council’s CAPE examination. In countries like Guyana, students in 6th form at the secondary school sit CAPE, while in places like Grenada, students sitting CAPE do so at the local community college. During the workshops participants work in small groups to identify a challenge facing their school and/or community and propose an innovative and sustainable solution that uses STEM.

With the exception of the always brave and enthusiastic 1st formers, it takes a little time to get some ideas of challenges facing the school. Some prodding helps, especially after one asks if their school has everything they could ever want and that they not only look forward to coming there each day, but they also hate to leave since it’s such an exciting and engaging environment. As one can imagine, the challenges identified vary from students whose classrooms are hot, to those whose science labs need improvement, to those whose school lacks properly functioning restrooms, to those who have no place to comfortably eat lunch, to those whose compound is strewn with garbage to those whose cafeteria food is expensive and unhealthy, to those whose classrooms flood every time it rains, to those whose school lacks multimedia spaces for learning, to those whose wastewater from the kitchen sink damages the local reef, to those whose restrooms lack soap, to those who have no library and no interesting science books to read. In all cases the challenges identified are all things that any parent, alumni, local business, and community organization would and should want to change, especially after the students come up with their own innovative solutions. While it’s distressing to see over 200 hands raised because the lack of soap in the restrooms troubles them, this challenge pushes them to think of maybe making their own soap as a part of their chemistry or other classes and maybe even developing a natural product that can be sold locally.

If we take for example the challenge of a hot classroom that makes learning uncomfortable if not impossible, most students would propose technological solutions like air conditioners and fans. So, the next question I would ask is who would pay for them. The usual answers are the Ministry of Education or Sagicor. After establishing those two answers as unacceptable, we then get down to business. They will fundraise through raffles, bake sales, talent shows and so on. Then they are asked, “Who will pay the electricity bill?” Having ruled out the usual suspects and probably realizing that they would be fundraising every day to do that, the fun begins. I was pleasantly surprised to hear students in Trinidad and Tobago propose that they would build solar panels to power their fans and explain that this would give them skills in renewable energy that are needed to deal with climate change. This coming from a country that has one of the highest per capita rates of CO2 emissions which is seen as one of the major greenhouse gases contributing to global warming and therefore changing climates. In Nevis, I was more than pleasantly surprised to hear students speak of their wind patterns and how they could design better windows for natural ventilation. Similarly, in Barbados it was so exciting to see students discuss the addition of trees for shade around their building and the use of reflectors, paints, and vines to reduce the impact of the sun on their walls. Of course, when the workshop ends the students must work on their ideas. This means they must do research, maybe run a pilot, conduct surveys, and figure out an implementation plan. As soon as they have their challenge identified I encourage them to register for a mentor on the website. We will match them with someone who could provide guidance and feedback on their idea and who is not necessarily local.

Our first mentor match occurred soon after we ran our workshops in Belize on October 25th, 2012. Caye Caulker’s Ocean Academy was matched with Dr. Ken Thomas, a Trinidadian born environmental engineer who lectures in the honors college at Auburn University in Alabama. Dr. Thomas assigned his entire undergraduate class a project that required collaboration with the Belizean secondary school students. The groups corresponded via email and at the end they met on SKYPE. Ms. Joni Miller, a teacher at Ocean Academy, sent Dr. Thomas the following email a month later, “Thank you so much for taking time to talk with the Ocean Academy student group this morning. They were nervous but excited to meet you. Of the six students, only one had ever used SKYPE before. It’s a pity the two-way video didn’t work, but here are some photos of the group so your students can see what they look like.” Similarly, Dr. Thomas replied, “Do tell your students that it was our privilege to assist and work with them. My students definitely benefitted from the process.” When asked if he would be a mentor, Linden born Guyanese, Dr. Vincent Adams replied, “Absolutely!!! I would love to mentor a team. In addition to energy, I am also an expert on environmental science/management, so that’s another area that I could provide mentorship if the opportunity exists.” Dr. Adams is the site director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Dr. Adams played cricket for Guyana prior to an injury that forced him to switch careers. He now holds one of the highest positions in the US Department of Energy and heads an NGO that works in Guyana called the Linden Fund. Secondary school students are encouraged to ask their mentors about their careers and how they got there, especially since a mere handful of the thousands of students I have met over the past four months have ever met an engineer much less wants to be an engineer. They are taking full loads of science subjects and the most popular career choices are medicine and forensic sciences. While those are great career choices, we hope to show students that there are other exciting careers in science and engineering. Dr. Cardinal Warde, the interim executive director of the Caribbean Science Foundation and professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology usually speaks of the next Google coming from a student in Barbados where he is from.

The project guidelines were developed using the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) social studies School Based Assessment, and students are advised to address all twelve points listed so that they are prepared for the competition:

1. State a challenge facing your school and/or community and your idea that uses Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics in a solution to make a more Sustainable Caribbean Community (that is, one that is healthier, wealthier, happier, smarter, safer, cleaner, more resilient to food scarcity, water scarcity). Select a problem that you would like to solve and write the solution in the form of an idea.

2. Provide background information on this problem and why solving it your way contributes to more Sustainable Caribbean Communities. A sustainable solution takes into account economic factors, environmental factors and social factors.

3. Describe one or more appropriate methods of investigation needed to better understand the problem you want to solve and how your idea would solve it.

4. Design a simple instrument (protocol) to collect the data needed to better understand the problem you want to solve and how your idea would solve it.

5. Describe the procedures to collect data.

6. State your findings. Compile your data, analyze it, and present your results and analysis using at least three different ways. You may select from:

7. Interpret the data in terms of the challenge and idea raised in Task 1

8. Describe how your idea incorporates science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM).

9. State three conclusions that you can make about your problem/idea, based on the information gained from your data.

10. Propose the implementation strategy of your idea based on your findings.

11. List of references.

12. Communicate information in a logical way using correct grammar & effective resources to support ideas.

The online application is now open on the website. A teacher or staff member from the competing school must submit the application on behalf of each student or student team. The application deadline is February 16th, 2013 and the biggest requirement is a 250-word project description. Between February 17th and February 22nd the projects are made available online for the public to vote on and students are encouraged to tell everyone they know to visit our website and support their project since this becomes a percentage of their judging criteria. From February 23rd to March 23rd we will hold national competitions in the various countries. There, the competing students will be provided with a poster board, table and power outlet that they can use in any way to showcase their project idea and convince our judges that their projects are the best. The team leader from each winning team and supervising teacher at the national level will compete in the regional competition in Barbados on April 12th and 13th. They will also represent their respective country in a seven day STEM Ambassador program to Florida which includes visits to places like the Kennedy Space Center, Disney’s EPCOT center, The Museum of Science and Industry and the engineering labs at the University of South Florida. Very soon, our project team will visit all of those places to finalize our ambassador program and I will do a follow up article to share the details of this exciting learning experience.

Our website is loaded with information related to the project, including an overview video and an animation of a project example. Our Facebook page ( is a great way to stay connected and we try to share updates on mentor matches, school visits, as well as provide resources that show what others are doing around the world to support sustainable communities. Send us an email at [email protected] or find our country specific contact information on our website.