From the melting ice caps in the Arctic to water scarcity in arid regions, the pressing environmental challenges echo in every corner of our planet, underlining a vital narrative: sustainability isn’t a localized concern but a global imperative. However, such complex issues demand a cross-border collaboration that unites the brightest minds across nations to forge solutions as universal as the problems they seek to address.
In this context, it’s not enough only for the governments or corporations to take action. The youngest generations, who will inherit the world in its current state, have a critical role to play. Armed with fresh perspectives and unbridled energy, they have the potential to pioneer some of the most innovative sustainable solutions for the future.
Yet, to do that – they need a platform. A place where they can freely express their thoughts, voice their concerns, and truly partake in this dialogue. Renowned chemistry professor, President of Terra Science and Education, and Dean at the D’Youville University School of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Fehmi Damkaci, agrees that the push for sustainability must start with the youth.
He highlights that introducing young students to environmental concerns helps them understand the seriousness of the problems and instills in them a sense of immediacy. “If given a platform where they can not just learn but also apply their knowledge in real-world situations, our youngest, brightest minds will be equipped with the necessary tools and experience to make a difference.”
This philosophy motivated Dr. Damkaci to partner with universities and found the high school-level project-based competition, the GENIUS Olympiad. Aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this platform aims to bring together young scholars from around the globe to collaborate on sustainability-focused projects.
The GENIUS Olympiad’s vision is clear: to inspire and empower the next generation of environmental leaders and eco-conscious citizens. Beyond scientific knowledge, it also aims to foster a sense of global responsibility, encouraging students to think outside their immediate surroundings and consider the wider implications of their actions.
Since the beginning, the GENIUS Olympiad has been a global magnet, drawing brilliant minds from over 120 countries. From North Africa to East Asia and Europe, the participants bring a plethora of cultural experiences and perspectives that enrich not just the competition but also the sustainability discourse.
“When all these students, their parents, and teachers gather in one place for a week, they engage in meaningful discussions about their projects,” Dr. Damkaci says. “It’s an interaction free of any political influence that not only enhances cultural awareness among the students but also encourages them to share their ideas with confidence.”
Of course, this diversity is not just about numbers. It’s the lifeblood of the event, fueling creativity. Students approach the same environmental challenges from various angles, shaped by their unique cultural contexts.
This leads to a multitude of solutions, each reflecting the distinct viewpoint of its creator. For example, a participant from Brazil might learn about solar energy solutions from a peer in Australia or gain insights into waste management from a fellow competitor in Japan.
“Open-mindedness plays a crucial role in these collaborations,” says Dr. Damkaci. “By embracing different viewpoints, students break free from conventional thinking, which can accelerate innovation.”
Reflecting on why project-based learning takes center stage at the competition, Dr. Damkaci explains that this approach is uniquely immersive and student-focused, offering learners a hands-on method to dive deep into environmental concerns and develop innovative solutions.
By tackling these problems in such an engaging way, students not only gain a profound understanding of the subject matter but also see the direct effects of their ideas and actions. They feel seen and heard and, most importantly, relevant.
“We aim to equip our participants with practical knowledge and help nurture them into citizens, scientists, writers, engineers, and policymakers of the future—agents who will contribute to greater environmental sustainability throughout their lives,” Dr. Damkaci emphasizes.
Looking into the future, he adds that the GENIUS Olympiad is currently working on a decentralized model allowing youths to undergo the first selection stage in their home countries. Currently, students have to fly in to present their projects, but should the decentralized model succeed, it will open the door for a larger number of hopeful participants.
As Dr. Damkaci says, “With the world becoming more interconnected, our model should evolve in tandem. We hope to expand our reach and ensure every brilliant young mind gets a fair chance.”