The Students as Change Agents programme brings together students from all disciplines and levels with external partners to collaborate on tackling complex challenges which have major social/environmental/economic impact. These challenges address at least 2 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and to date have included topics such as the circular economy, youth homelessness, gender financial equality, sustainable tourism, healthy ageing and ending violence against children. Unsurprisingly, recent topics have addressed the impact of the Covid pandemic on existing challenge areas.

Partners come from the non-profit, public and private sectors and are motivated to experience innovation in action, getting an insight into the current generation’s fresh thinking on their enduring challenges, while investing in future talent. The students who participate want to apply their learning to make a difference in the world, and the programme helps them become effective ‘change agents’ through training in team working, design thinking and using data to tackle challenges: “I realise the responsibility and the power my generation has to drive change. We are more conscious and have access to information that was once difficult to achieve. Students as Change Agents simply means realising the impact one can make and that having a position of authority is not the only way to expect change in this world”. Some participants have already begun to take their ideas forward, as internships, research topics and even social enterprises.

The transformation process for students on their confidence and skills development is one of the most important impacts of this programme, but the partner organisations also benefit from the impressive outputs that the student groups produce – short videos and business-style reports, which bring the challenge to life and outline their innovative solutions to tackling it. One host organisation described being “blown away by the students’ creativity, motivation and energy to make a difference”.

What’s unique about this challenge programme is that is forms an important student-facing strand of the University’s Data Driven Innovation initiative (DDI), within the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. It provides an opportunity for students to contribute to data driven innovation in the city region, regardless of their academic background. They get the chance to work with organisations keen to harness the power of data and develop closer relationships with the University and its talent pool. These organisations are introduced to the programme through the DDI Innovation Hubs established at the University to stimulate growth in key economic sectors in the city region.

Students as Change Agents was designed to test the appetite from students and external organisations to collaborate on challenges, using data to stimulate innovative thinking and our experience has confirmed this exists. We have ambitious plans for scaling, and no shortage of ideas for challenge topics from partners or enthusiasm from students to take these on. The one barrier to growth we are facing is designing a programme which is accessible to the majority of students. We successfully experimented with delivering it online during lockdown and see this as a more sustainable option for future programmes. However, the key learning from our pilot work so far, is that to cater for the maximum number of students and external partners, interdisciplinary, challenge-led experiential learning needs to be integrated into the curriculum.

Further information is available on our website ( or from Ruth Donnelly, Assistant Director at the Careers Service, University of Edinburgh,