Student-Led ‘Ideathons’ Yield Blueprints for Solving Conservation Challenges

April 12, 2018

Tim Lucas, (919) 613-8084 or

duke student blkueprint

DURHAM, N.C. — A student-led initiative called Duke Blueprint is bringing together hundreds of scholars, students, and corporate and nonprofit leaders to brainstorm solutions to some of the world’s most pressing environmental and social problems.

The initiative, now in its second year, hosts an annual “ideathon” at which students from diverse disciplines team up with practitioners in engineering, conservation, biology and medicine for a weekend of fast-paced, hackathon-style idea sharing, problem solving and rapid prototyping.

This year’s Blueprint Ideathon, which was themed “Nature + Progress,” drew 273 participants from around the country to Duke’s campus on Feb. 2-3.  Their goal was to jumpstart new technologies and approaches for reconciling protection of the natural world with economic progress and rapidly expanding population growth and human development.

One concept that emerged was a modular algae and bivalve production facility that would allow commercial algae to be grown in three dimensions rather than only across the surface of water.

The system would enable growers to quickly ramp up production to meet growing demand for algal protein for both human and animal consumption, and for use as biofuel.  The system’s design would also allow it to capture excess greenhouse gases emitted during the production process.

The student-mentor team that developed the concept is now working with ConservationXLabs to refine and prototype it.

“The amount of energy, the amount of creativity and the ideas people have at Blueprint are incredible,” says Alex Dehgan, CEO of ConservationXLabs and the Chanler Innovator in Residence at Duke, who served as one of 36 mentors for students at the event.  

Blueprint organizer Joshua Furth, a mechanical engineering senior at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, notes that this is the second year in a row that a concept developed at the annual event has been further developed with guidance and support from external partners.

Last year, a student-mentor team developed the concept for a low-cost, gravity-powered device that would help farmers in Africa and South Asia protect their fields from elephant stampedes by simulating the sound of swarming bees. That technology has since been prototyped and field tested in South Africa with support from the U.S. Army Research Office.

Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and Nicholas School of the Environment are among 32 academic, corporate and nonprofit sponsors of Duke Blueprint.  Other sponsors include the World Wildlife Fund and Delta Air Lines.

Mentors at this year’s event included widely cited experts from National Geographic, Procter & Gamble, the NOAA National Research Council, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Department of Justice, the World Wildlife Fund, ConservationXLabs, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and the Science Policy Tracking Program. They also included experts from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Wake Forest University, Appalachian State University, the University of Maryland, Northern Arizona University, Woods Hole Research Center, Blue Meridian Consulting, the Forest Foundation, TransLoc, and from numerous schools, institutes and centers at Duke.

The Duke Conservation Tech student group, based at Pratt, organizes the annual Blueprint Ideathons. Next year, events will be held not only at Duke but also at other universities nationwide.