ASU students use the power of storytelling to drive awareness of water scarcity at Idea Jam

Collaborative storytelling hackathon aims to educate, inspire communities

A group of students sitting together listening to a presentation.

More than a dozen Arizona State University students came together to develop creative ideas to increase public awareness of the critical water issues affecting Arizona communities at Idea Jam 2023

From undergraduates to doctoral students, groups combined their expertise and creative thinking to find solutions that could have far-reaching impacts on the state’s agricultural, industrial and residential communities. 

Student ideas ranged from interactive movies with alternative endings to immersive virtual reality video games and apps that tell consumers how much water it takes to produce their food.

“As I worked with my team members, our ideas started to really gain momentum and turn into something tangible,” said Sanjana Mukherjee, a graduate student studying computer science at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Impact Water - Arizona, which is housed in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, joined forces with Learning Futures and Decision Theater to sponsor the event in an effort to reach new audiences and address the state’s dwindling water resources through student innovation. The collaboration also aims to provide student internship opportunities and real-world experience.

“We know that when people play games and get involved in immersive experiences, they are much more emotionally connected,” said Dan Munnerley, executive director for Learning Futures. “They have much more empathy with a problem because they've invested in the story — role-playing a character in the game."

Two teams tied for first place at the event. The project ideas included an interactive movie with different endings driven by the viewer’s decisions and a dystopian survival game set in 2150 with limited water reserves. Mukherjee was a part of the team that designed the interactive movie concept.

Looking ahead, Decision Theater will offer one student a paid internship to develop their idea into a product during the fall semester. Learning Futures will support students in the winning teams during the summer semester and again in the fall semester. This will include paid hours, mentorship opportunities and other resources from Learning Futures and Decision Theater.

The iterative process not only enhances problem-solving abilities but also instills a sense of confidence and resilience, laying the foundation for a future generation of technology pioneers ready to tackle the world's most pressing challenges with creativity and collaboration.  

“We really wanted to leave a lot of space open for creative thinking,” said Olivia Hernández, who organized the event and is the creative manager at Learning Futures. “So their imaginations, in particular, are unencumbered with doubt or how technically feasible something may be right now.”

“The Colorado River shortage is a massive crisis that we need to come up with ways to address,” said Chelsea Dickson, assistant director at Decision Theater. “It’s inspiring to hear new ideas of how to engage people in that topic, from a perspective and a generation that hasn’t historically been a part of that conversation.”

Lake Powell and Lake Mead — resevoirs that provide water to more than 40 million Americans across seven states, as well as Mexico — are at record-low levels despite rainy and snowy winter conditions. Last year, the federal government cut over 20% of Arizona’s Colorado River water allotment due to ongoing drought conditions. 

RELATED: Why you should care about Colorado River cuts

“I think the people who've really been focusing on Arizona’s water crisis could use new ideas and approaches,” said Sarah Porter, director of ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. “I’m excited about the possibility of bringing completely new approaches and philosophies to our water challenges.”

This cross-disciplinary collaboration is emblematic of a broader movement toward interdisciplinary problem-solving, one that recognizes the interconnectedness of environmental, social and economic issues surrounding Arizona’s water challenges.

As learners continue to pioneer new ideas and technologies, events such as these are a reminder of the power of collaborative exploration in addressing complex challenges.

“It’s truly inspiring to see how our mentors’ passion and excitement motivated a new generation to tackle complex problems in innovative ways, leveraging new technologies and creative storytelling to reach their peers and families,” Munnerley said. “Their eagerness and forward-thinking approach promises a brighter future, and I'm thrilled ASU can be a part of the solution.”

Top photo: Sponsored by Impact Water - Arizona and hosted at ASU Learning Futures, the half-day "jamathon" generated innovative ideas to address the Arizona's water crisis through immersive creative media. Photo courtesy Enterprise Technology/ASU 

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