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A team of four students from the Duke and Duke Kunshan programs was one of two winning teams in the 2020-2021 U.S.-China Student Challenge, sponsored by the Georgetown University Initiative for U.S. China Dialogue on Global Issues.

The challenge was to present creative ideas on how to reset the relationship between the U.S. and China, at a time marked by harsh rhetoric and antagonism.  Over 100 undergraduate students from institutions in the United States and China submitted 26 projects and eight teams were selected as finalists. In addition to the winning Duke and Duke Kunshan team, twenty other students from both campuses were part of other teams.

In February 2021, two winning teams were announced by the initiative: the Duke and Duke Kunshan team and a team with students from Georgetown University, Zhengzhou University and Communication University of China.

The Duke team project, “Creating and Using Space for Peace,” proposed a joint United States-China satellite program that could generate common data sets on global issues, such as climate change and emerging diseases. The project included a written proposal and a video that considered feasibility, technology and the mutual benefits of scientific cooperation.

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The Duke & Duke Kunshan team for the U.S.-China Challenge
A team of four students from the Duke and Duke Kunshan programs were one of two winning teams in the 2020-2021 U.S.-China Student Challenge, sponsored by the Georgetown University Initiative for U.S. China Dialogue on Global Issues. The challenge was to present creative ideas on how to reset the relationship between the U.S. and China.

The students found out about the challenge from Director of Undergraduate Studies Christina Gibson-Davis. Joanne Kim PPS’22 knew of Spencer Kaplan PPS’21 through the public policy major and quickly joined Duke Kunshan students Lan Tang and Hong Pham on their team.

Kaplan, a senior double majoring in public policy and political science at Duke in Durham, and a self-proclaimed “space guy,” initially proposed space as a possible topic to the team.

“I strongly believe that space systems can help fix nearly every global challenge,” he said. “The United States and China are on a collision course in many domains, but space does not have to be one of them. There's a long history of working together in space despite tensions at home, so maybe space could be an opening for the United States and China to find basic ways to cooperate in a way that benefits humanity.”

The team agreed that the joint satellite program had potential and began meeting regularly via Zoom. Since Lan Tang, a junior at Duke Kunshan majoring in environmental science and public policy, was in China, the first hurdle was finding times that worked for everyone, which sometimes meant early morning or late-night meetings for the members.  

A junior studying public policy and psychology on a pre-law track, Kim is interested in artificial intelligence, ethics, and health policy. Through her internship with Intel last summer, Kim experienced, firsthand, the effects the Sino-American relationship could have on trade and regulation.  Her internship inspired her to learn more about US-China relations, leading her to compete in this competition. “It was important to draft a solution that did not necessarily employ the latest technology, given the long history of mistrust between the two nations,” Kim said. The proposal ultimately recommended using commercially available or heritage systems to manufacture the platforms.

“The team worked because each person played to their strengths,” she noted. Kaplan wrote the first drafts, Kim edited them, Pham was the researcher, and Tang produced and edited the video.

Pham is a junior at Duke Kunshan, studying global health with a public policy track. She consulted with several professors at each stage of the process. The team had to submit a 500-750 word essay and 1-2 minute video on October 1, and a 1,000-1,500 word essay and 3-4 minute video on January 1.

“Through the process of getting to know each other, brainstorming, and creating the final products, I learned that teamwork brings unique ideas together and we built a supportive team to create a system to ensure deadlines were met,” said Pham.

As the video producer, Tang created the script and the English and Chinese subtitles and edited in the narration of each team member. "I learned so much from this project, especially from my team members. We are a very diverse team but somehow created a nice fusion across different ideas, majors, and countries.”

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