UPEI students shine at Policy Hackathon 2020
When fourth-year student Anna Mallard signed up for Policy Hack 3.0, she never expected to be celebrating a major win for herself, her team, and the province of PEI.
“I was so shocked when we won,” she said. Participant microphones and videos were off when the decision was announced, giving Anna the opportunity for a private and well-deserved happy dance.
Her elation was understandable. The PEI Policy Hackathon, now in its third year, is a case competition that provides Islanders with the chance to work on real, complex challenges facing all three levels of government.
Hosted by the Province of Prince Edward Island, Veterans Affairs Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Startup Zone, and the University of Prince Edward Island, the program is open to professionals from any of the five partner organizations.
"PEI Policy Hackathon is a great example of a collaborative partnership fostering experiential, collective learning and capacity building for both our partner organizations and their participants," stated Planning Team Chair Andrew Halliday.
"The goal is to provide meaningful professional development through multi-disciplinary teams innovating to develop creative solutions to real policy challenges."
The emphasis on participating as a professional made Anna hesitant to sign up at first.
“As a student, you're up there with professionals in the business field, provincial government professionals, federal government professionals, and that’s not even the judges! So there's a sense of intimidation,” she said. “But then I realized, hey, if anyone can do this, why can’t I?”
Originally scheduled for a five week period over the months of June and July, the 2020 event was re-organized into a five-day sprint to the finish beginning October 13.
For Anna, that speedy turnaround was a big part of the learning experience. “When you have a short amount of time, you really have to rely on one another,” she said. “This helped me learn how to be a more effective teammate and a better communicator, especially online.”
Participants were organized into twelve multidisciplinary teams, and each team was assigned one of six policy questions. They also received daily professional development to aid the advancement of actionable solutions.
Anna’s group was tasked with finding new ways to support food manufacturers in reducing the use of single use plastic packaging, a subject she had recently explored through her Co-operative International Business specialization.
“My team members were really interesting and had a lot of experience across different domains,” she said. “Everyone brought knowledge to the table, and I realized that as a student I’m able to provide a unique perspective and fresh insights.
But one of the biggest benefits of this program was being able to learn from everyone else,”
The value of learning from others was also highlighted by Dennis Lee, a student in the Masters of Island Studies program. “For international students like us, we need to have the opportunity to connect with local governments and communities,” he said.
"This event gave us the chance to go beyond books and assignments to work with real people. It really gives you hands-on experience.”
Reflecting on the challenges of the competition, Dennis and Anna agreed that their viewpoints as students were heard and valued. “They were very supportive,” said Dennis. “In terms of teamwork, they listen to your advice and try to understand what you’re thinking.”
Marlene Mulligan, also participating as a graduate student, said the eagerness for fresh perspectives was palpable.
Despite not advancing to the finals, Marlene’s team has already made a tangible impact. Their work attracted the attention of public servants working on similar initiatives, many of whom commented on the remarkable potential of the innovations proposed by the team. One senior administrator even dropped in on an informal get-together after the event to thank the whole team in person.
Planning Team Chair Andrew Halliday believes that the impact of student participation in Policy Hackathon 2020 went well beyond each individual's experience and take-aways.
"The nine Master of Arts in Island Studies graduate students and three upper-year undergraduates participants brought their own unique perspectives and energy to every team," he said.
"The quality of the policy work and competition day pitches during such an intensive time frame was noted by our coach mentors and judges alike."
As for the winning strategy? Anna attributes her success to what she’s learned through the UPEI co-op program. “The whole point of working and studying is to take what you're learning at school and put it into your work, then take what you're learning at work, and put it right back into school.”
“It’s definitely a big learning curve,” she says, looking back on the experience. “But it’s worth it because it’s all about learning: learning from the people you work with, learning about your capabilities, and learning what you’re able to do.”
PEI Policy Hackathon is a yearly event, and Policy Hack 2021 is tentatively scheduled for late spring, coinciding with the first summer semester. For more information about this opportunity, students are encouraged to contact the UPEI Experiential Learning office.
Banner image photo, (L to R): PEI Premier Dennis King, Clerk of Executive Council Paul Ledwell, Bethany Knox (JPS), Mohamed Deeb (ITSS), Cara Squires (IPEI), Eileen Larkin (HW), Anna Mallard (UPEI), Coach Maria MacAulay (HW)