NU Declassified: Students vie for grants at ImproveNU, H2Aware makes $7,000 splash

DAN HU: Welcome to NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus. I’m Dan Hu. Last week, we talked with several teams participating in this year’s ImproveNU competition. If you haven’t listened to that episode, click the link in the transcript or find it at The Daily Northwestern’s website under NU Declassified. Out of nearly 50 applicant teams, Northwestern’s equivalent to Shark Tank ultimately came down to 10 finalists this past Saturday, Feb. 29. On this episode, I’ll take you on a tour of my day around the competition stage.

DAN HU: Around 9:30 in the morning, I arrived at the McCormick Foundation Center, where ImproveNU had been in full swing since 8 a.m.

DAN HU: Hey, what team are you guys?


DAN HU: Scope?

JOSH WINOGRAD: Hi, I’m Josh. Scope is a discount aggregation platform. The idea is that students in the Northwestern community have a lot of discounts available to them, whether through their Wildcard, Groupon, whatever. Scope aims to be a platform that takes all those discounts and shows you clearly where and what those discounts are.

DAN HU: During this semifinal round, 37 teams are split into five categories. They all give 10-minute pitches behind closed doors. McCormick juniors Josh Winograd and Arshya Srinivas, the team behind Scope, are about to enter a closed room to give their pitch. We’ll hear more after they’re done.

JOSH WINOGRAD: Two teams from each of the lists, there’s five or six different categories, will move onto the finalists. And then they’ll all pitch this afternoon, 20-minute pitches.

DAN HU: After team Scope leaves to pitch, I catch up with the teams I met on our episode last week. First, I found Weinberg sophomore Wes Jiao, who just pitched his idea to provide a shuttle service for Northwestern students to O’Hare Airport.

DAN HU: So how was it?

WES JIAO: I thought the presentation went really well. I think overall, they were really receptive to it, and they recognized the problem I was trying to solve. Each of the rooms — the layout is distinct. The one that I was in was very helpful. It was structured kind of like an MBA or a law school classroom. There was a big projector and a very formal monitor that I was able to look off of when I was clicking through the slides, so that made it a lot easier as well.

DAN HU: I also talked to Weinberg junior Rahul Shukla, who led the Northwestern Open Data Project.

DAN HU: So how do you guys feel?

RAHUL SHUKLA: We feel that the presentation went well.

[TEAM MEMBER]: Unfortunately, we feel that maybe the audience was less technical than we were expecting.

[TEAM MEMBER]: I think we talked about it so much between the four of us that we thought we were being clear about what Open Data is, a data set and all that stuff. Because we went into detail about all these, like, very technical issues, and I just feel like we didn’t need to talk about that at all.

DAN HU: And what happened to last week’s challenger, the Norris lake improvement campaign led by Reza Lotfi?

CHRISTIAN WADE: Yeah, so grad students aren’t allowed to participate unless they’re partnered with undergraduate students, so Eden Lake applied but were unable to participate because it was just a graduate student.

DAN HU: That’s SESP sophomore Christian Wade, the director of this year’s ImproveNU competition. By the time I caught up with Wade, the team for Scope had finished their first pitch.

ARSHYA SRINIVAS: It went pretty well. We were on time. Also, the feedback they gave was super useful.

JOSH WINOGRAD: They were more interested in implementation, which for our perspective is really a good thing. It shows to us that our idea is solid.

ARSHYA SRINIVAS: They were talking a lot about, “Well, when you graduate, how are you going to maintain Scope?” We talked about how we’re really passionate about the project, and we would love to go full-time into this.

JOSH WINOGRAD: We got to the finals last year in this competition, and we’d love to return this year.

ARSHYA SRINIVAS: Yeah. We’ve been doing Scope for just about a year and a half now. We didn’t have a product, but this year we do. We actually launched yesterday.

JOSH WINOGRAD:, check it out!


DAN HU: Congratulations!

Thank you!

DAN HU: At this point it’s around noon, and the judges for the final round are beginning to filter in. Among them are Provost Jonathan Holloway and Associate Director of The Garage Hayes Ferguson.

JONATHAN HOLLOWAY: I don’t know what to expect. It’s a little awkward since I’m leaving soon, but I think the University is smart to pay attention to students in terms of this aspect . They might have new ways of imagining the University that the administration may not have thought of, so that’s exciting. Let’s see what’s in store.

HAYES FERGUSON: We too, from The Garage, are very excited. I had the honor of participating in this event last year, and watched as it’s grown. Also, I’ve seen the results of last year’s competition. A lot of people pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors that are very good for both the University and the world beyond.

DAN HU: At about 12:30, all the teams, staff and viewers reconvened in the Forum, where Christian announced the list of ten finalists. None of the teams from last week’s episode made it through, but Scope advanced. After a short break, the final round of pitching begins on stage.

First up, a team called H2Aware.

LIBBY MARKHAM: Hi, I’m Libby Markham.

TALIA SCHULHOF: I’m Talia Schulhof.

LIBBY MARKHAM: And we’re H2Aware. Climate change can be a really scary topic to talk about, but we realize that small adjustments can bubble up to big changes.

So we reached out to students to get a better grasp of the problem. We spoke to Naomi Aisen, who’s a first-year. She told us, “Water usage has been on my mind. I’m concerned because my suitemate takes really long showers, and I’m not sure if she realizes how bad it is for the environment. So we came up with a solution: H2Aware shower timer. These timers are simple. They’re easy to implement, and can be taken on and off the shower wall with a suction cup on the back.

DAN HU: Next up was Scope.


JOSH WINOGRAD: I’m Josh. Today we’re going to be talking about Scope.

ARSHYA SRINIVAS: The current platform that Northwestern has does not make it easy to find these discounts. And as you can see, these discounts are listed alphabetically. This organization is not conducive to how students actually search for discounts.

DAN HU: After Scope was CATalog, an app for course registration and scheduling; and ExerciseU, an app for a less stressful workout. Then came Light Therapy, and ArtWalk:

[ARTWALK MEMBER]: You may or may not be aware, there is a dirt path [audience laughter] that goes from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary to Ford, and we have a problem with that.

DAN HU: After that was NU Fuel, which proposed grab-and-go snack stations around campus that can be used with the meal plan; ArtivateNU, an arts initiative to bring people together; the Global Engagement Review Panel, to make sure Northwestern students were not engaging in “voluntourism” when traveling abroad, and ExChange, which plans to set up donation boxes for clothes and goods:

[EXCHANGE MEMBER]: Every college student, on average, produces 640 pounds of waste a year. And there has been a documented spike that happens in the months of May and June, when students are moving out from college and they just leave behind a lot of things and this definitely isn’t necessarily trash. A lot of it is stuff they really value, but just can’t take with them.

[EXCHANGE MEMBER]: Many low-income students report struggling with resources on campus.

[EXCHANGE MEMBER]: This leads to our proposal for ExChange. In terms of resource excess, we aim to increase the redistribution of resources by adding community free bins at the end of every residence hall and dorm, from which students can freely add to and retrieve items from throughout the year.

DAN HU: As the last finalist pitch wrapped up around 4:30, the judges went upstairs to deliberate. All the teams began filing into the auditorium as we awaited the results.

CHRISTIAN WADE: In third place, we have Scope!

CHRISTIAN WADE: In second place, ExChange! And in first place, we have, drumroll, we have H2Aware!

DAN HU: After checks were awarded, NU Declassified caught up with H2Aware for some final thoughts on their first-place win. Medill freshmen Libby Markham and Talia Schulhof said they applied on a whim, so they were initially surprised by their victory.

LIBBY MARKHAM: It’s been a lot of emotions in one day. We’ve gone from thinking our idea is never going to work, and then we presented the first time and were not feeling confident after. Then we got to the finals and were feeling a little bit better. Our first reaction was, us in the corner just laughing out of pure shock.
TALIA SCHULHOF: Like, is this a joke? What are they getting themselves into?
DAN HU: However, they said it was the simplicity of their idea in the face of complex climate change issues that ultimately won them the day.
LIBBY MARKHAM: We are confident about our idea, and we put a lot of work into it, and we’re really excited to do it. I think The Garage is probably going to help us with that, hopefully, and at other schools, they’ve been doing this in the past, and it’s worked, so why shouldn’t Northwestern save money, save water and help students feel like they’re empowered by doing something good for our climate crisis?
We love to just do random stuff on a whim. That day, at lunch, we were just talking, and I think Talia was like, “We should do shower timers.” We started the pitch that night. It was simple, to-the-point. It pays for itself; if 0.8% of students reduce their shower time, it pays for itself in a year.
TALIA SCHULHOF: I don’t think it’s 0.8% of students, I think it’s if we just reduce our time by 0.8% collectively.
LIBBY MARKHAM: I’ve always been really passionate about climate change and those issues, and this year, we both realized that there’s climate anxiety around, what do we do in this crisis? It’s so big, and it’s just terrifying to hear every day that we’re going to die and there’s no point. So it’s just an easy way to see how you can implement changes in your lifestyle.
TALIA SCHULHOF: I think it makes people know that they don’t have to start a revolution to have an impact on the climate crisis. You could just take a five-minutes-shorter shower and be doing something. Every drop counts.
DAN HU: As the sun set on a Saturday full of competition, the judges and competitors streamed out of the McCormick Foundation Center. Christian, who we spoke to earlier, was still inside. He ran the event all day.
CHRISTIAN WADE: I’m feeling a sense of finality. It’s over. We’ve been planning this for months now. I think really good ideas won.
I think it went as best as it could have gone. There are going to be hiccups the day of, but I think this year, any hiccups we may have had didn’t have any real impact on the event.
DAN HU: With the third year of ImproveNU now complete, Wade reflected on the new winners.
CHRISTIAN WADE: Scope, they were actually in ImproveNU last year, and they made it to the finals last year, so the judges were really impressed by how much they’d grown, and the fact that they have a finished product.
ExChange, that was something that there’s definitely a need for on campus. A lot of students’ clothes and other items just go to waste. Personally, I throw out a ton of stuff that I definitely should be donating.
First place, H2Aware, that was one of my favorite ideas for sure. We as students waste a lot of water, so it definitely addressed a need and it’s definitely practical. I think it will go a long way in addressing how we as a campus see the environment and treat the environment and the world around us. It’s practical, it’s feasible, it’s not going to take a ton to implement on campus.
DAN HU: You spend so much time on this, what’s next for you?
CHRISTIAN WADE: Next, I have to do homework. I have finals and stuff coming up.
We’ve come a long way, and there’s a lot to go to realize ImproveNU’s full potential. I definitely see it expanding in a multitude of ways. This year, we doubled the number of applicants, and I definitely want to see that growth continue. More teams means more ideas, and more ideas means more great ideas. I also want to see it grow from the standpoint of giving more money to the winners. Seven thousand dollars is a lot, but ten thousand is even more.
DAN HU: As ImproveNU’s teams move forward from the event, bringing their proposals either to fruition or back to the drawing board, look out for the arrival of H2Aware shower timers and ExChange donation bins on campus in the next few months. As you wait, you can check out, which is already up. For the last time this quarter, this has been NU Declassified.

ImproveNU 2020 was co-sponsored by Associated Student Government, The Garage, Northwestern Student Organizations and Activities, Northwestern Alumni Association, Northwestern Student Affairs, Northwestern Office of the President and BrewBike. This episode was reported and produced by me, Dan Hu, and Ilana Arougheti. Jacob Fulton contributed to reporting. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Kalen Luciano, the digital managing editor is Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Troy Closson.

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Twitter: @thisisdanhu, @neyachalam

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