St. Mary's Academy Team Wins 2021 World Affairs Challenge

(Pictured from left: Lauren Anderson, Aaniva Heidt, and Annabelle Good, St. Mary's Academy Middle School Grade 8)

Although handwashing with soap is vital in the fight against infectious diseases, including COVID-19, billions of people around the world do not have access to a place to do it, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

A team of problem-solvers from St. Mary's Academy's Middle School is on the case, and their project gained them first place in the World Affair Challenge on Saturday, March 6.

Aaniva Heidt, Annabelle Good, and Lauren Anderson created a solution to a sanitation challenge at Malama Primary School in Malawi, Africa, inventing a system to dispense powdered soap made from local resources and integrated with a water system installed by a community partner they identified at Freshwater Project International. Their project also includes awareness education and a fundraising walk on World Water Day, March 22 to expand their efforts.

The winning team chose to focus on United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UNSDG) #6 Water and Sanitation to fulfill a key requirement in the competition. The theme this year was "Humanity".

“We really wanted to do water, because it’s such an important part of life in general," said Annika. "We pieced it together bit by bit until it became the reality that it is.”

“This particular set of girls is very eloquent, can make a logical argument, and, as evidenced by their project, they’re not afraid to step out as leaders in their community,” said Hope Mukai, Program Director of the World Affairs Challenge, who noted that the students independently reached out to Freshwater Project International and formed a strong partnership there with co-founder Heidi Rickels and its work to bring fresh water to people in villages, schools and health centers in Malawi.

Beyond their practical solution developed over a two month research study, the youths were recognized for the strong performance on a global awareness quiz, their formal presentation, their collaborative skills with other students on event day, and the strength of their partnership and collaboration with their community partner at Freshwater Project International. 

The SMA team also identified ways to raise money for their project in collaboration with H2O for Life, a non-profit that supports youth taking action to solve the global water crisis.

Team member Lauren said, “I enjoyed collaborating with all my partners. We worked well together.” 

Thirty-three teams representing ten schools advanced to the final round this year in the challenge, which is approaching its 30th anniversary. Five teams from St. Mary's Academy were in the finals, presenting solutions like community refrigerators in food deserts, water filtration for Uganda, food backpacks for a local school, and using plants to take toxicity out of polluted soil.

"The creativity they demonstrated was very interesting," said Mukai.

The virtual format necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for broader participation by international partners. During the day's event, judges from Nigeria, Costa Rica, and North America observed and scored mixed school groups work through a brand new challenge. “I found that I had to talk with people that I didn’t know and be civil and agree to disagree,” said Annabelle. “It was a good learning experience."

St. Mary's Academy facilitates the World Affairs Challenge program for all eighth grade students through their Community Action Team service learning structure and supported by their social studies and language arts teachers. Joe Riehl, Social Studies Teacher, is the program sponsor.

"The successful groups demonstrated laser-like focus on making an impact," says Chris Leavens, SMA Language Arts Teacher. "What is special about this project is seeing the students realize their potential and impact. There were several groups that were interested in seeing their project through even if they did not win the overall competition. I believe that speaks to their enthusiasm and belief in themselves."

Community Action Team advisor Jason Jung concurs: "It was wonderful seeing the "creative life," energy, and ingenuity that the World Affairs Challenge breathed into the cohort. They truly embodied their roles as powerful agents of change, with sustained passion for their work and a degree of professionalism usually attributed to much older and mature students."

St. Mary's Academy is Denver's premier Independent, Catholic, Co-Ed Pre-K to Grade 8 and All-Girls High School, founded in 1864 by the Sisters of Loretto. Based in Cherry Hills Village, St. Mary's Academy fosters excellence in each child through academic achievement, spiritual development, and service. The Loretto School Values of faith, community, justice, and respect provide the foundations for students to be powerful agents of change.

The World Affairs Challenge (WAC) was created by the Center for Teaching International Relations (CTIR) in 1992 as part of what is now the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. It started as a community outreach program to educate students and teachers about global issues. In 2010, CTIR became an independent 501(c)3 organization."Our vision is that every student will develop awareness, understanding and engage in global issues in a way that leads to positive action in the world."