Inspiring a new generation of environmental champions

Sandi Seneviratne, Deakin University
September 13, 2022
Triumphant smiles – the winning team of the YEC 2020 – 21, withtheir Teacher-in-charge.

This story is a celebration of community. In a testament to the spirit of camaraderie between Australia and Sri Lanka, this story sees educational communities across the two nations, unifying despite a global pandemic to make a lasting and continued impact.

An idea to uplift young minds

The Young EnvironmentalistsChallenge (YEC) is a competition initiated by Deakin University in partnership with the Royal Institute of Colombo (RIC) in Sri Lanka. YEC sees teams of secondary school students identify a local environmental issue and create a practical engineering solution. Consisting of three rounds - two in-country, and one international, the YEC is held over a period of six months. Initiated in Sri Lanka in 2019, the YEC has enjoyed considerable success, with student teams from government, semi-government and international schools around the country participating in this highly inclusive competition.

Embodying the ethos of seven and a half decades of the Australia-Sri Lanka friendship and collaboration, the YEC has created an opportunity to uplift Sri Lankan youth, by supporting them in designing smarter technologies, advancing society, culture, and the economy, to enable a sustainable world. This competition transforms these young students and they, in turn, are solving local environmental issues, and sharing their ideas with the world.

A student from the 2020YEC, shares her experience, “This competition was an eye-opener... The passion exemplified by the Deakin academics made us want to make and change and do whatever we can to make a difference that would last. As of right now, we are waiting on our patent approval for the activated carbon filter, and we are onestep closer to decreasing the levels of air pollution in Sri Lanka.” Indeed, the competition has been so successful that winning groups from Sri Lanka have been empowered to patent their designs for manufacture and distribution.

Nurturing a spirit of Community

The YEC has nurtured a spirit of community and collaboration with the appointment of Deakin and RIC academic staff as mentors to the student groups. The high-level engagement and knowledge-sharing see Deakin academics in Australia, jointly with RIC academics, as well the Sri Lankan schoolteachers (the liaisons for their student groups), unitedly mentoring and inspiring these students.

Moreover, the indomitable spirit of the YEC was demonstrated, with the bulk of 2019-2020’s competition and the entirety of 2020-2021’s competition, conducted during the height of theCOVID-19 pandemic. Student teams, teachers, and the Deakin and RIC mentors found ways to effectively engage online, finding ways to work together remotely across lockdowns and different time zones. Dr Liz Weldon, one of the YEC academic leads from Deakin, captures the spirit of this Australia-Sri Lanka endeavour, “The competition was a fantastic example of what can be achieved through global partnerships to solve local environmental problems and provide positive outcomes for local communities”.

Furthermore, the YEC has resulted in the strengthening of cross-institutional ties. The Deakin-RIC relationship has grown from a successful licensing partnership, to include facility and study support in 2021. This has provided Sri Lankan students with a valuable opportunity, especially during the pandemic travel constraints, to study on Deakin’s online platform with additional support from a trusted and high-quality Sri Lankan institute.

A testament to the Australia-Sri Lanka friendship

The fact that Deakin has been able to successfully implement theYEC in Sri Lanka, is a testament to the lasting goodwill, familiarity, and trust that Australia has nurtured with Sri Lanka for seventy-five years. Deakin has welcomed Sri Lankan students over the decades, and the YEC has been Deakin’s opportunity to give back to the Sri Lankan community, by championing a prevalent topic of the times. School children in Sri Lanka too can now challenge and inspire their peers and wider society to become the change-makers of their futures.

Heartfelt Appreciation

Deakin has been privileged to represent Australia and Australian education in creating this momentum towards environmental advocacy amongst school students in Sri Lanka.Furthermore, the YEC initiative was recently bestowed the 2021 Deakin Vice-Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Contribution to Community Partnerships. TheYEC team wish to share this award with the wider YEC family and communities who make every year a better success- the school Principals who permit their students to participate in this challenging competition, the schoolteachers who guide and motivate their student teams and most importantly - the passionate and brilliant young minds, the students whose innovation and determination continue to make the Young Environmentalists’ Challenge a story worth telling.