Being essential: 2020 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award winners

By | 16 minute read | January 10, 2021

Among the 15 global winners of the 2020 IBM Volunteer Excellence Awards is a team of IBM volunteers in the United States who designed and 3D-printed face shields during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifteen IBM teams and individuals from around the world are recipients of the 16th annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award.

The CEO-level award recognizes IBM employees and teams who best exemplify the IBM values of dedication, innovation and trust through their volunteer efforts with not-for-profit organizations and schools.

Justina Nixon-Saintil, Vice President and Global Head of IBM Corporate Social Responsibility said, “Despite the extraordinary challenges of a pandemic and social injustice, IBM volunteers—as they’ve done so many times in the past—rolled up their sleeves to share their expertise and commitment with communities around the world.”

The 2020 award winners, totaling over 400 IBM volunteers, made an impact in their communities through their passion to improve the lives of others along with their expertise in technology such as AI, cybersecurity and the Open P-TECH platform.

Also, volunteers collaborated like never before in cross-national and global teams to amplify the impact of their efforts. One project in Europe brought together IBM volunteers in 13 countries to reach over 300,000 students. In Vietnam, IBM volunteers from the Netherlands, Singapore and the United States joined in to create AI education to help close a significant skills gaps.

Organizations receive grants—IBMers choose projects for additional grants

Organizations associated with each winner will receive a grant from IBM of USD 10,000 for a total of USD 150,000 across all 15 winners. The grants will expand the work started by the IBM volunteers.

For the first time, IBM will also offer three additional USD 5,000 grants, as chosen by IBM employees and retirees. Called the IBM Volunteers’ Choice Award, IBMers are invited to vote for their favorite project on the IBM Giving & Volunteering portal (IBM only; login required)—each winner will receive an additional grant for their partner organization.

Below are summaries of the award-winning individuals and teams from 2020; each will be featured in a story of service in the coming months.

Argentina—Solar eclipse and online STEM education (team award)

A total solar eclipse is both a spectacle and an incredible learning event. However, those opportunities are diminished when you can’t leave your home to experience the eclipse due to COVID. Not wanting to let the occasion pass in 2020, a team of IBM volunteers worked with the Argentine Astronomy Association to create an astronomy channel on the Open P-TECH platform, along with a comprehensive communications strategy. The volunteers coordinated with 11 other astronomical institutions in Latin America, who selected a series of materials to upload to the platform in Spanish and Portuguese. The team then used IBM Design Thinking, Agile and marketing expertise to create a new website to provide information about the eclipse. In order to build awareness, the IBM volunteers also used their skills in communications to provide media training for the astronomers, create a video documentary, develop a press kit, lead the live broadcast of the event, and host a podcast. In all, the event generated well over one million impressions, supported STEM education and brought new users to Open P-TECH. More than 200 volunteer hours were logged.

IBM volunteers used their expertise to create and amplify a new astronomy channel in Spanish and Portuguese on Open P-TECH. 

Brazil—Mentoring disadvantaged youth and people with diverse abilities (team award)

Looking to increase their community engagement despite the pandemic, IBM volunteer Carolina Joaquim and members of the IBM Technology Leadership Council in Brazil developed a two step initiative with Instituto da Oportunidade Social (IOS)—an NGO dedicated to using technology to bring professional training to low income young people and those with disabilities. In the first phase, the IBM volunteers led future vision sessions with IOS to create a broad view of impact and to expand their thinking; lectures and workshops enhanced the organization’s social work. In the second phase, the volunteers directly engaged with students in a series of mentoring sessions designed to share experiences, discuss future trends, and consider the use of technology. Altogether, 25 sessions were held in 2020 and included the use of IBM Activity Kits, volunteer grants and learning guides. The sessions were shared on the IOS YouTube channel and had more than 4,000 views. The initiative was recognized by the IBM Brazil technical leadership team.

Carolina Joaquim and a team of other IBM volunteers helped an NGO extend its reach.

Canada—STEM education for girls (individual award)

In 2016, under Heather Ricciuto’s leadership, a small group of volunteers founded the IBM CyberDay4Girls program, whose high-level intent is to address the cybersecurity gender gap and fill the pipeline with talented young women. The program, which now relies on hundreds of volunteers around the world, teaches cybersecurity basics to girls, introduces them to cybersecurity role models, provides core lessons including an intro to blockchain and reinforces learning. The initiative has become very successful and effective, winning awards, media coverage and the admiration of young girls around the world. Since 2016, there have been more than 145 CyberDay4Girls events, reaching over 39,000 girls in cities across 13 countries including Nigeria, South Africa, India and Costa Rica. In 2020, four core lessons in the program were converted into IBM Activity Kits to further expand their reach. In early 2021, a week-long cyber safety campaign used CyberDay4Girls content to reach 30,000 students. Over 1,200 volunteers have participated since its inception, logging more than 12,000 volunteer hours.

China, Hong Kong and Taiwan—STEM education (team award)

After a successful start in 2019, the AI Enlightenment Season returned in 2020 and extended its reach to include children in Hong Kong and Hong Taiwan, in addition to those in mainland China. The expansive program is designed to offer young students a broad introduction to STEM topics, with an emphasis on AI, robotics and computing—and was formed based on market research indicating a gap between students wanting STEM education and those receiving it. Across the three geographies, nearly 3,000 IBM volunteers used Open P-Tech, IBM Activity Kits, and other IBM resources to provide almost 140,000 students with learning sessions in STEM. IBM Business Partners also participated. The initiative garnered over 300 media articles, thanks from teachers and students, and numerous awards including the Corporate Social Responsibility China Education Award – Best CSR Innovation, “Outstanding Program” by 21st Century Business Herald, “Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility” for IBM Taiwan by CommonWealth Magazine, and the “Caring Company 2020” Award to IBM Hong Kong by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

The AI Enlightenment Season expanded to include activities in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Thousands of IBM volunteers participated, helping almost 140,000 students.

India—Remote learning and mentoring for girls (team award)

In two related activities, IBM volunteers impacted the educational and career prospects of girls in disadvantaged environments. For the Government Degree College for Women, the team created a study circle of over 600 students in which the students accessed information, self-guided materials in career preparation, competitive exams, job notices, scholarships, and had the ability to ask questions and seek guidance. The volunteers also provided remote mentoring on coding, soft skills and networking with alumni, which included creating an alumni database and website. The team then transferred their experience to the Sarada Vidyalaya Sankranti Foundation by conducting eight online classes for three months on various subjects, including improving communication skills, STEM activities and career guidance. The IBM volunteers made use of IBM resources including community grants, SkillsBuild and activity kits. In all, about 1,000 students across 13 institutions have benefited from their efforts.

The volunteer team used their expertise and several IBM resources, including activity kits and the SkillBuild platform, to support the educational and career needs of nearly 2,000 young women.

India—Audiobooks for learners who are visually challenged (team award)

The objective was simple—provide recordings of books—but the execution was challenging, requiring project management skills and commitment. In 2020, a large team of IBM volunteers worked with an NGO to record a series of textbooks for students with visual impairments and provide them with audio-based learning. After assembling the volunteer team, a single contact was assigned to each book to manage the process to completion with sub-teams of volunteer readers. Over 300 hours of high quality audio, spanning topics in English and Tamil, were captured and delivered on time. The volunteers needed to practice the content, provide sample audio before full engagement, find quiet and calm locations to record, allocate time, and provide post-recording curation support. The new audio textbooks will be useful for years and about 600 students benefited in 2020. IBM learning guides and a community grant supported the initiative.

Over 300 hours of audio were recorded by IBM volunteers to help 600 students with visual impairments.

India—Supplementing education with new tech webcast series (team award)

As in other parts of the world, COVID-19 caused the shutdown of schools in India with practically no warning. Local government guidelines asked schools and universities to conduct online classes, but many of those institutions and their teachers were not prepared or trained in how to do it. Discovering that students could get credits by attending sessions led by industry experts, a team of IBM volunteers created a webcast series about emerging technology for Gurunanak College Chennai and five other colleges in India. On average, 100 to 270 prospective engineers per class attended several webcasts a week, which the volunteers conducted before beginning their workday. As expected, the volunteers also had to manage technical issues with the webcasts as well as coordinating the schedule. In the end, over 2,500 students participated and the series helped final year students complete their courses and graduate.

IBM volunteers created a webcast series on emerging technology to help students earn school credits during the pandemic and graduate.

Italy—STEM education for girls (team award)

NERD is the name and acronym of the project created by IBM Italy in 2013. The name refers to STEM topics and comes from the Italian question, “Non è roba per donne?” which translates as “Isn’t this for women?” NERD is designed to help female students understand that digital skills and technology are for them too and break down the stereotype that STEM subjects are not for girls. Each year, from January to May, the project is delivered to high school girls by over 100 all-female IBM volunteers in collaboration with 17 Italian universities. In 2020, the program was online and made use of the Open P-TECH platform, but still followed the established curriculum of rapport building, workshops in AI, and a competition where winners earn an IBM internship (150 girls won internships in 2020). Usually the program takes place in 15 cities in Italy. Pre- and post-program surveys indicate a marked increase in a girl’s interest in STEM. Since its inception, 17,000 girl students have participated, and schools in the program have seen a 20% to 40% increase in computer science and engineering university enrollments by women. In one case, the Polytechnic University of Bari has seen an increase of 40% in applications from female students—all from girls who participated in NERD.

Since 2013, an all-female team of IBM volunteers has shown girls in Italy that technology is for them too.

Japan—New collar education (team award)

P-TECH is an innovative education model that offers students the opportunity to develop skills and competencies that will translate directly to competitive careers. In Japan, 28 IBM volunteers worked with students, teachers and administrators at the Machida Technical High School to validate the model and demonstrate its effectiveness. The team developed a series of courses on basic IT skills and delivered them to the students based on their experience at IBM. The volunteers also provided intensive mentoring sessions and career development activities to support career planning for each student. Based on the successful pilot, Machida will become the first P-TECH school in Japan in 2021, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has agreed to move forward to evaluate other potential schools. The project received media coverage as a new model of education. The volunteers have continued to advocate the approach by re-using some of the materials at other schools or universities, such as Rikkyo University.

IBM volunteers validated the P-TECH learning methodology and demonstrated its effectiveness. In 2021, Japan will join the growing list of countries with P-TECH schools.


Pan-Europe—Keeping schools going during COVID-19 (cross-national team award)

The pandemic forced schools to reconsider their delivery methods, student contact mechanisms and pedagogy. Italy was the first European country to be impacted and in response to the Italian government’s call for companies to support closed schools, the IBM Corporate Social Responsibility team in Italy connected with Cisco Italy to form a partnership to provide distanced learning. Cisco provided WebEx licenses and free registration while IBM provided volunteer support to train teachers on how to use the technology. This partnership and volunteering model were shared and replicated at speed across other European and Latin America countries. The project scaled to include 13 countries, 325,000 students, nearly 4,000 volunteers and 70 NPOs. The program also motivated IBM volunteers to continue supporting their local schools and non-profit organizations beyond the distance learning initiative during the ongoing pandemic. For many European countries it has been the catalyst for supporting school ambassador programs, such as helping teachers and schools take advantage of Open P-TECH. The distance learning initiative received national awards, recognition from government ministries, several hundred media appearances across dozens of countries and the praise of students and teachers. The IBM Volunteer Excellence Award is shared by 145 IBM volunteers in Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom.

A partnership between IBM and Cisco to provide distance learning capability started in Italy and scaled to other countries in Europe and Latin America, impacting over 325,000 students.

Poland—The first AI to talk about classical music (team award)

IBM volunteers in collaboration with two P-TECH schools, two industry partners (ING and Fujitsu) and the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR), embarked on an ambitious project to use technology to increase appreciation of classical music. By extension, the project also had benefits in digital learning, knowledge and skills development in emerging technology, and career preparation. P-TECH students worked with IBM volunteers and music experts in Poland to develop an IBM Cloud and IBM Watson-based solution that answers over 10,000 questions about classical music. The project was developed during COVID lock-down and the students were entirely online. They learned the process of building and testing a chat and voice bot solution, and about classical music. The solution provided NOSPR with a new way to interact with their audiences, which was especially valuable during the pandemic. The project resulted in 200 earned media appearances and received MIT’s CEE Excellence Award for responsible tech.

IBM volunteers engaged P-TECH students and industry partners in Poland to develop an AI and cloud-based app to help a national symphony engage its audience.

Turkey—Board service and mentoring (individual award)

Derya Sel Bozkurt became active with Toplum Gönüllüleri Vakfı (TOG), or Community Volunteers Foundation, as a university student in 2003. It was the start of a long relationship with the NGO that promotes social peace through innovative youth volunteerism. In subsequent years, Derya established the TOG Graduates group, which is now one of the funding channels of the NGO. She joined the Board of Trustees and serves as a board member. Now she mentors other young volunteers; essentially, teaching and growing the next generation of volunteers for social good. Being a role model, as a woman in technology, provides her with a standing that carries a positive message. Derya volunteers and mentors about two to four hours every other week via calls with young volunteers and provides project management consultancy to both TOG professionals and volunteers. She received the ÖSGD (Private Sector Volunteers Association) award in 2011 and represented IBM in ÖSGD Panel in 2019. As a board member, she participated in the organization’s operations, which in 2020 reached nearly 38,000 young volunteers through 1,100 projects serving over 450,000 people.

Derya has been a volunteer and a board member with an organization that empowers volunteerism in young people.

US (Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Texas)—Making personal protective equipment during the pandemic (team award)

At the start of the pandemic, when the infection rate in the New York area was escalating, the State University of New York at New Paltz issued an urgent call for personal protective equipment for health care workers. IBM volunteers in the mid-Hudson valley initiated an effort to tap into IBM’s vast technical knowledge and equipment, enlisting support from other employees in Minnesota, Vermont and Texas. In just six weeks, the team optimized the initial design for prototype production of face shields, used procurement to scour existing and new pathways for inventory of critically short material, called on valued partnerships with IBM suppliers, and enlisted a small army of IBM and personal 3D printers. Their efforts and thousands of hours of volunteerism equipped 15 hospitals and care centers throughout the New York area with 12,000 visors and 35,000 shields—living up to IBM’s reputation as a respected and essential neighbor in the communities. The university professor who initiated the call for help said, “If someone had said a month ago that (IBM) would make this many face shields I would have been a bit incredulous.”

IBM volunteers designed, sourced, and printed almost 50,000 face shields to support nearly 40 organizations during the pandemic.

US (Texas)—Marketing and design expertise for non-profits (team award)

For three months, a team of IBM marketing and design experts volunteered with six Austin, Texas-based nonprofit organizations in the 2020 Infuse Austin Summer of Service—the third year in a row for the event. With expertise spanning marketing strategy, visual design, writing and project management, the IBM volunteers provided tens of thousands of dollars of in-kind assistance to boost the agencies’ marketplace presence and engagement assets during the pandemic when the staffs were focused on delivering valuable community support. Design thinking workshops were used to explore possible solutions and approaches, along with Mural to capture input on personas and messaging. The volunteers re-designed and built new digital assets—applying talent unavailable to the six organizations. Newly designed web sites and assets, along with strategy consultation, helped the nonprofits better reach their audiences, which include senior citizens, people needing housing, and threatened and abused individuals.

IBM volunteers with expertise in marketing and design provided six non-profits with vital support during the pandemic, helping them more effectively reach their constituents.

Vietnam—Closing the AI skills gap (cross-national team award)

The market demand in Vietnam for professionals with AI skills is high, but there simply are not enough trained people to fill the jobs. Initiated in Vietnam, a cross-national team of IBM volunteers came together to use their expertise in AI and machine learning to close the gap and upskill the talent pool in the country. Working from Vietnam, the Netherlands, Singapore and the United States, the volunteers coordinated a curriculum they developed with trainers and lecturers at three educational institutions in Vietnam. The IBMers logged a total of 550 hours to design training manuals for teachers, modify source code on Github and develop hands-on lab exercises, and made use of IBM Activity Kits in robotics and AI. In November 2020, they delivered a virtual training for over 100 ICT teachers throughout the country and are providing post-training support as those teacher begin teaching the lessons to students. Many cited the initiative and its approach as a highly effective way to address a pressing need and make progress when the pandemic threatened to widen the gap even further.

A cross-national team of IBM volunteers is helping to close a significant gap in Vietnam for AI skills. TJ Bot is a key learning tool.