Five students from the UVU Center for Social Impact traveled to Great Britain to participate in the Map the System competition at the University of Oxford June 16-20. There, they presented their project, “Nuclear Pollution in the Navajo Nation,” before an international audience, competing against similar systems mapping projects done by graduate and post-graduate students.
This marks the third year UVU has participated in Oxford’s Map the System competition. This global competition engages students and universities worldwide in systems thinking and visualizing social problems.
Systems thinking is a research methodology that examines the systems that produce social problems, including the stakeholders that create them, their root causes, and the reinforcing cycles that allow them to continue.
UVU students Kate Hickman, Jorge Garcia, Ivette Pimentel, Josh Leon, and Clayton Rawson chose to study and map out the history and fallout of uranium mining in the Navajo nation, which resulted in decades of exploitation, cancer, organ failure, genetic mutations, and other adverse effects of radiation exposure.
Utah Valley University’s project went far beyond regurgitating facts from Wikipedia into a five-paragraph essay. The UVU social entrepreneurs spent months reviewing the literature, qualitative research and interviews, and doing discussions and surveys to fully understand the contributing issues to radiation in the Navajo Nation.
“I’m so proud of the effort the students made to interview Indigenous community members and stakeholders and become informed through the work of Indigenous scholars and storytellers,” said Cassie Bigham, program director at the Center for Social Impact.
“At the Center for Social Impact, we emphasize the importance of lived experience — the expertise and important perspectives of those who have lived through a social problem and thus have the most proximity to it and valuable input. The students made sure to be guided by the lived experience of members of the Navajo Nation every step of the way.”
This year’s Oxford competition included more than 40 universities from across the globe. All three winners were made up of postgraduate student teams. However, UVU earned a special commendation from the judges for “Excellent Undergraduate Project.”
For Professor Bingham, it’s experiences like these that remind her of the importance of engaged learning.
“It is so important that UVU provides opportunities for students to learn problem-solving skills and learning methods that develop them as critical thinkers, collaborators, innovators, and coalition builders,” Bingham said. “Students are yearning to make a difference in their communities and societies, especially in an era where it feels like there is extra divisiveness and less access to decision-making power and influence. Learning something like systems thinking through a research and visualization project helps students develop empathy and think deeply about social structures and how new and better processes that benefit more people can be designed.”
Project team lead and bioinformatics student Kate Hickman said audience presenting this research before an international helped empower an otherwise underrepresented community.
“The work we did is valuable because we were trying to show the perspectives of people who don’t have a lot of power over the issue,” Hickman said. “I believe that we’re telling a new story with the research that we’ve done, and that story is one that has largely been ignored.”
“Honestly, the entire Oxford experience was rather fantastic,” Hickman said. “There was just something so exciting about being surrounded by people who are highly intelligent, actively involved citizens, and care about social impact. And that was really great to be in that environment.”
Because of her and her team’s work, Hickman was selected to be a fellow with the Center for Social Impact in her last year at UVU. She will be helping mentor other students with Map the System next year.
“I’m very excited to work with the center going forward,” she said.