Role Model Student Projects from 2019

Project Ideas for 2020


Agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change, but crop yields are also being jeopardized by environmental changes, and smallholder farmers are among the most vulnerable. Volatile weather patterns, rising sea levels, and record-high temperatures are threatening to destroy farmland, particularly for farmers in the tropics and those in poor farming communities. Wildfires in California have also had enormous consequences for small farms, ranches, and vineyards in our region.

How can we improve the outlook for small farms in light of climate change? 
Read: Climate Change and the Death of the Small Farm

Recycling has long been promoted as a means of improving our environmental footprint. But the rules regarding what’s recyclable and what isn’t seem to be constantly changing, and the recycling process remains opaque to most consumers. In reality, as little as 8.4% of our discarded plastic is actually recycled, and many local municipalities are canceling recycling programs as American waste exports decline. Climate-conscious consumers and institutions are left confused about how best to dispose of waste.

How can we improve recycling processes to ensure products are disposed of in an environmentally responsible way at scale? 
Watch: The Great Recycling Con


Opioid addiction in the United States has reached an all-time high, with an average of 130 Americans dying each day from opioid overdoses, tearing apart families and communities across the country. But addictive behavior can manifest across a wide variety of activities, from eating, gambling, and gaming, to drugs and alcohol. Now, to counteract or preempt addiction, some are turning to new unorthodox methods, from “dopamine fasting” to adopting a “sober curious” lifestyle, indicating that more and more people seek to live without dependencies.

How can we leverage AI to address addiction?
Read: As Tens of Thousands Died, F.D.A. Failed to Police Opioids

Nurses are the primary hospital caregivers. Yet, a recent study finds that nurses spent just 19.3% of their with patients and only 7.2% of their assessing the patient and reading of vital signs. Most of their time was spent on documentation (35.3%), medication administration (17.2%), and care coordination (20.6%). On average, nurses walk 4-5 miles during a 12-hour shift (most Americans walk just 2.5–3 miles during the course of an 18-hour day). Health care leaders and nurses alike would prefer to reduce the number of steps a nurse takes during a shift in order to increase efficiency, decrease fatigue and increase time at the bedside.

How can we optimize nurses workflow?
Read: A 36-Hospital Time and Motion Study: How Do Medical-Surgical Nurses Spend Their Time?

Mental Health & Well-Being

More than half of Americans feel lonely, with 2 in 5 feeling like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.” About 28% of older adults live alone, and social isolation is particularly acute among the elderly, resulting in poor health outcomes. Loneliness has been linked with a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. It has been shown to influence our genes and our immune systems, and even recovery from breast cancer. Further, studies have found that loneliness is a predictor of premature death, not just for the elderly, but even more so for younger people.

How can we reduce loneliness?
Read: Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden

After a relatively stable period between 1999 and 2007, the rate of suicide nationwide increased dramatically from 2007 to 2017. According to the CDC, the rate of suicide across all age groups grew by 26%, but for young adults (ages 10-24), the rate increased by a staggering 56%. The rate of teen depression also shot up 63% during the same period. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for young adults, with only accidents (primarily cars) responsible for more deaths.

How can we reduce the rate of teen suicide and depression?
Read: Why Are Young Americans Killing Themselves?


Overall, just 57% of college students obtain a degree after six years. At four-year for-profit colleges, the typical completion rate is 35%. The situation is little better at public (two-year) community colleges, where the completion rate is just 38%. Community college is often an important pathway toward upward economic mobility because they reach large populations of low-income and minority students. They serve 56% of Native Americans, 52% of Hispanics, 43% of African-Americans, and 40% of Asian/Pacific Islanders. Therefore, low completion rates—particularly at community college—are a critical problem for non-white students seeking a path to the middle class and higher-skilled employment.

How can we increase completion rates?
Read: College Completion Rates Are Still Disappointing

Student loan debt in the United States has more than doubled over the past decade to about $1.5 trillion. Millions of Americans are in default, and many young people in debt have delayed buying homes or starting families due to the financial burden. Middle class families are often hardest hit, pressured to send their children to college at any cost.

How can we decrease the cost of higher education?
Read: Heavy Student Loan Debt Forces Many Millennials To Delay Buying Homes


Macroeconomic forces and technological advancement are shifting the labor demand across industries. For instance, demand for workers in service industries could increase by up to 45%, but these jobs require skills that do not necessarily translate from production sectors where technology is expected to eliminate jobs. These skill mismatches are expected to be even larger in developing countries and countries with large consumer markets. One of the great challenges of the coming decades will be to prepare the workers and companies for the workforce of the future.

How can we retrain and reskill the workforce of the future?
Read: The New Production Workforce – Responding to Shifting Labour Demands

Close to 74% of undergrads are not “traditional” students. More than 2 out of 3 college students today are not coming straight out of high school. Half are financially independent from their parents, and 1 in 4 are parents themselves. Non-traditional students come to the classroom with unique perspectives and are often very diverse, including veterans, construction workers, and entrepreneurs. Yet, we have not changed our traditional college model.

How can we optimize the higher ed model?
Read: What Adult Learners Really Need (Hint: It’s Not Just Job Skills)

Social Cohesion

Political polarization in the United States is higher than ever, with some analyses suggesting that polarization is the worst it has been since the Civil War. As a result, political disputes have threatened to divide families, strain marriages, ruin friendships, and poison the workplace. Political anger is so potent that 91% of voters said it was a “serious problem” in a recent poll. Unless it is stemmed, increased hostility among voters threatens to weaken our democracy and undermine the social fabric of our communities.

How can we reduce polarization and political anger?
Read: In a Divided Era, One Thing Seems to Unite: Political Anger

Public trust in information sources and media has declined in the last decade, with a new poll indicating that today only 41% of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in newspapers, television, and radio to report news fairly and accurately. Worldwide, trust in media varies substantially, from a low of only 12% who have some trust in media in Greece, to a high of 93% in Uzbekistan. However, distrust is only likely to grow with the proliferation of synthetic media, disinformation, and targeted propaganda.

How can we restore trust in news and media?
Listen: Looking to the Future: Restoring Public Trust in the Media