By Published: Nov. 7, 2022

Map the System offers CU Boulder students the chance to present their ideas for addressing deeply rooted issues at an international competition sponsored by Oxford University

Deeply rooted, complex social problems don’t tend to come with easy solutions.

“They’re not the kinds of thing you can fix with a catchy elevator pitch,” says Don Grant, professor of sociology and director of the social innovation certificate program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

That’s why Grant is excited to spearhead the CU Boulder campus-level Map the System contest, part of a global competition hosted by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford, which challenges college students from participating universities across the world to think differently about social and environmental change.

Grant explains that, while many universities in recent years have encouraged students to seek ideas to address pressing social issues, that has been accompanied by a focus on presenting quick fixes at the expense of understanding the deeper issues involved or recognizing why past attempts to address those issues have failed.

Don Grant

Don Grant spearheaded the CU Boulder campus-level Map the System contest.

“Map the System takes a learning-first approach to social change,” he says. “The students delve deep into a problem that matters to them, they think and research about the system in which it is embedded, and then they share their findings.”

He adds: “This contest is a little bit different than most … in that students aren’t selling solutions. They’re not selling products or services. They’re not doing a sales pitch. They’re simply trying to share what they’ve learned about a problem from a systematic perspective.”

With that in mind, Grant says CU Boulder will host its third-annual, campus-level Map the System competition in the spring.

The two previous Map the System contests at CU Boulder drew a wide spectrum of students, and Grant expects a similar outcome for the upcoming event.

“You know, it’s a campus-wide contest, and so we’ve been lucky to get students from all different colleges, undergraduates as well as graduate students,” he says. “But it mainly attracts students who are very passionate about a particular problem, and they see themselves as committing their careers to addressing it.”

Grant says the Map the System contest at the CU campus came in response to the many students who are interested in putting their values into action and making a difference.

“The other push for this contest was that one of the three directives of the chancellor is for CU Boulder to be a top innovation university in the country—and we see this as sort of further that goal,” he adds.

As part of the competition, students will present 10-page, double-spaced papers, which will be evaluated by a three-member judge panel.

“That paper does three things: It describes the problem they are interested in; it discusses the solutions that have been tried so far; and then finally it addresses the remaining opportunities to further mitigate this problem” Grant says.

A final part of that report includes a one-page visual map that summarizes what students learned from their research, provides additional information on what solutions have been attempted to date, and offers final thoughts about anything they think still needs to be done, according to Grant.

Students are encouraged to apply if they want to build their research and presentation skills; connect with other socially conscious students, innovators and changemakers; prepare for internships and career opportunities; and compete to potentially present their findings.

Grant says that CU Boulder is particularly fortunate to make use of the expertise of Daniela Papi-Thornton, the founder and former deputy director of the Global Map the System challenge. She now lives in Boulder, serving as an instructor for one of CU Boulder graduate programs, and has agreed to share her experiences and insights with student contestants for the 2023 competition.

This contest is a little bit different than most … in that students aren’t selling solutions. They’re not selling products or services. They’re not doing a sales pitch. They’re simply trying to share what they’ve learned about a problem from a systematic perspective.

That kind of help could prove invaluable for participating students, Grant says, adding that the winning CU Boulder team or individual will have the opportunity to compete in online semi-finals in May. From there, between 15 and 20 teams from universities across the world will be selected to come to Oxford in the United Kingdom in July to compete in the Map the System Global Final.

More than than 60 higher education institutions from 21 countries participated in the 2022 competition, according to Oxford’s Global Challenge website. Past contestants have addressed a wide range of topics, including wildfires, deforestation, food waste, the opioid epidemic, and refugee integration.

While the past two CU Boulder Map the System award winners were not able to attend the global competition because of COVID restrictions, Grant says they describe the experience as being invaluable.

“You know, those two winners speak glowingly about their experience, and it really opened some doors for them,” he says. “In addition to helping them get into graduate school and maybe have something to add to their résumé, they thought it made a big difference personally.”

There also is a cash prize for the top winner at the Oxford competition, but Grant says that the rewards for participating are far beyond financial.

“The important thing students get out of this is they get some feedback on their problem,” he says. “But most importantly, they are put in contact with mentors and experts on these issues that they can consult with in the months and years ahead. And so, this can really open some doors for students—especially those who are committed to using their careers to addressing complex problems.”

To learn more about the CU Boulder Map the System event, there will be an information session on Monday, Nov. 14, from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. over Zoom. For questions about the competition, email professor Don Grant at More information about Oxford’s global competition can be found on the organization’s website.