Carnegie Mellon University

global challenges

March 04, 2019

Economics Program Hosts Global Challenges Competition

The Undergraduate Economics Program invited students from across the Carnegie Mellon University campus to participate in the inaugural CMU Global Challenges Competition. The annual hackathon-style competition challenges students to develop a recommendation to address a global societal issue that integrates economics reasoning and data analytics. 

“The idea originated once we assessed the economics undergraduate research landscape at Tepper,” said Laurence Ales, Associate Professor of Economics and Director of Undergraduate Research in Economics. “When talking to undergraduate students we realized that there was significant demand for an event that would enable students to put some of the tools learned in their economics courses into practice.”

This first challenge was focused on environmental sustainability. Teams of three or four students were prompted to propose a policy that would help to slow or stall climate change.

A total of 65 students in 16 teams participated in the event. Economics junior Shlok Goyal and economics and statistics junior Omkar Sakhawalkar were excited when the competition was announced. They teamed up with friends Sahn Kim, a junior economics and statistics major, and Ben Klingensmith, a junior behavioral economics, policy, and organizations major.  “Since we knew each other well and enjoyed discussing economics, we thought it would be fun to do an economics competition together,” Goyal said. “It was!”

The 24-hour event started on the evening of Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, when participants gathered for a short presentation that presented them with the assignment: “Design a policy (or a set of policies) that will enable the planet to maintain the 2 C temperature target of the Paris Agreement.”

Student teams spent the night working through their ideas for policy proposals in preparation for the next day’s presentations. “Since the time provided was limited, it was quite a challenge to come up with an innovative and feasible solution,” first-year business administration student Heidi Si said. “It was almost midnight when we decided to change our emphasis, so we had a really intense time limit. 

Si’s team — including her business administration classmate Taylor Jiang, first-year Dietrich student Yukai Yang, and economics and statistics senior Adam Tucker — earned Best Quantitative Analysis for their project.

Si credited assistance from Ales. While teams were not permitted to seek outside help on their projects, they were able to seek the advice of faculty and Ph.D. students who were present as advisers for the event.

Several other Tepper School teams earned awards at the event, including the “Sustainability Squad,” whose presentation was recognized as the Best Article. “We split the work between researchers and writers so that two people would be responsible for collecting and analyzing data to create content, and then the other two people would be in charge of writing and organizing the information that was found through research,” first-year business administration student Janie Xue said. Her team included her classmates Hannah Chan, Sophie Hue, and Claire Lee. 

“Our team consisted of four close friends who were all studying business and interested in the challenge,” Chan said. “Everyone on the team worked hard to contribute to the article. Our team’s dedication and focus resulted in our success.” 

Economics and statistics senior Andrew Wissinger registered as an individual, hoping to work with younger students “so I could try to help teach them a few things,” he said. At the event, he formed the “Carbon Surfers” with first-year business administration students Sophia Huang and Max Nitke.

The Carbon Surfers’ project was named the “Runner Up” presentation. “I think the most important factor that contributed to our placement was the different direction we approached the problem to other competitors,” Wissinger said. “Our team focused on reducing methane emissions through regulations and taxes on natural gas and oil producers. We had a very unique and creative solution of including seaweed in livestock feed to reduce methane emissions.” 

The presentations were evaluated for how realistic the proposals were and how well the students grounded their recommendations in quantitative analysis. “Overall, especially given the short amount of time, I was surprised by the creativity of some of the submissions,” Ales said.

Goyal’s team, “Oilgopolists,” earned the top “Champions” prize. “Our proposal was to distribute carbon credits to countries based on a variety of factors like population, vulnerability to a temperature increase, efficiency of carbon emission use in production, and current dependence on carbon emissions,” he said. 

He stressed that his team was also focused on enjoying themselves. “That made us more willing to put in time and effort into the policy.”