Student Teams Take on Complex Societal Problems via Tiger Challenge

As part of a team project last year, Shelley Zhao found herself briefing corporate human resource officers about hiring refugees. Early on, one executive at a firm with more than 5,000 employees expressed surprise to learn that refugees did not need work visas because they are pre-cleared through the United Nations.

“There was a huge gap in employer knowledge,” said Zhao, who graduated in June with a degree in computer science. For a team of Princeton students working to help refugees settle in the United States, she said, “that was our big ‘A-Ha’ moment.”

The refugee-settlement team – which focused on challenges including employment, transportation and language skills – was one of 12 teams that participated in last year’s Tiger Challenge, a program run by Princeton's Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. Tiger Challenge guides students from across the University through a process for investigating seemingly intractable problems and designing solutions. Last year, teams took on projects including local journalism, teacher shortages and lead poisoning.

"Tiger Challenge is a chance for students to do something tangible that has a real impact in their community, while learning a process for addressing societal challenges generally," said Rafe Steinhauer, the program director.

The application for four new Tiger Challenge teams recently opened. Starting this October, teams will attempt to develop ways to address issues including predatory debt collection, the opioid crisis and adolescent health needs. First-years, sophomores, juniors and graduate students from all departments and experience levels are encouraged to apply, said Steinhauer, a 2007 alumnus.

Once filled, the four new teams will bring to 14 the number of active Tiger Challenge teams, each with about five students. The teams partner with a community organization or a campus office to uncover insights into the nature of a problem and then conceptualize and design a solution to at least one aspect of the problem.

Participants in last year’s program made substantial headway in a number of areas. The refugee assistance team, called UpRise, took aim at the gap in employer knowledge identified through their interviews with employers and resettlement volunteers and staff, in New York, New Jersey and Virginia. Team members designed an educational program for human resource officers on the requirements and benefits of the refugee resettlement program. After discussions with corporate representatives, the team streamlined the program and developed an online course for hiring officers. Successful completion of the course awards a certificate that a company can display in their office or online to indicate they are a refugee-friendly employer.

Team members said that in addition to the prospect of making a difference on a substantial problem, the Tiger Challenge process was deeply satisfying. Victoria Gasparowicz, a senior, recounted a conversation with a refugee who described giving up his own dreams of going to school so that he could earn money for his family as soon as possible in the United States.

"It made me think of my parents who came to the U.S. from Poland and gave up their dreams to pursue education to come make a better life for our family," Gasparowicz said. "So our project was more than just connecting with team members; it was connecting with people from all over the world."

For more information about the upcoming projects and application.