Category Development

The Big Ideas contest aims to encourage involvement from as many students as possible from eligible campuses, and is designed to spur interdisciplinary participation. As a result, Big Ideas has developed a set of contest categories that, together, stretch across multiple disciplines, and individually, are broad enough to accommodate projects of many different types. In the 2016-2017 Contest year, Big Ideas consists of nine contest categories that span broad areas. Thanks in part to these broad category areas, students who compete in the Contest hail from a variety of different majors and departments on campus.

The way Big Ideas categories developed over time is analogous to the structure of a shopping mall. In every shopping mall there are anchor stores that are large, established, and highly visible chains that help draw consumer traffic to a mall. In addition, there are the established but smaller secondary stores. Finally, there are floating shops that tend to be smaller and less permanent. Global Health, Energy & Resource Alternatives, Information Technology for Society, Improving Student Life, and Scaling Up Big Ideas have long served as the “anchor” categories for the Big Ideas contest. They are most established, longest running, and best-known categories, and thus draw students to the contest. Art & Social Change and Food Systems categories are established but smaller “secondary” categories. Each year, Big Ideas also offers “floating” categories that are new and topical, such as the Hardware for Good and Financial Inclusion categories.

When developing new categories, three key factors are considered. First, the new category should fit within the mission and scope of the Big Ideas contest (refer to sections on Mission & Goals and Big Ideas@Berkeley History). Secondly, there should be potential sponsorship and funding opportunities to support the category, either on-campus or externally. Third, the category should draw upon a specific and new area of emphasis or expertise apparent within the collective student body. Finally, the category should round out the selection of topics covered in a given contest year by not creating substantial overlap with other existing categories.

At the end of each Contest year, Big Ideas staff conducts a review to determine a) which categories to renew (or not), b) which categories should be modified, and c) evaluate opportunities for new categories. Each existing category is assessed based on the following criteria:

  • Level of student interest (i.e., total number of proposals received)
  • Extent of interdisciplinary collaboration (i.e., total number of disciplines/majors represented and interdisciplinary collaboration within teams)
  • Overall strength and potential impact of proposals that received funding
  • Feedback from student applicants
  • Ongoing partnership and funding (donor) opportunities

Using the above criteria, the anchor categories, which tend to be higher-profile categories with long-term partnerships, are typically renewed each year. In some cases, the category titles and descriptions are revised and broadened to encourage a higher number of applications from a wider range of disciplines. In situations where few proposals are received and/or no sponsorship opportunities exist, a category may be dropped. Other times, topics are found to be too general and overlapping of other categories, in which case they are also discontinued.


  • Develop clearly defined yet sufficiently broad categories. The central challenge when framing a new category is to make sure it is clear and concise enough that prospective applicants understand the category’s intent while also making it sufficiently broad enough to attract potential applicants from a variety of disciplines. It is quite common for students’ projects to fit into multiple contest categories.For instance, in the 2015-2016 contest, a team proposed a mobile application that provided students with detailed information on restaurant ingredients to help them make more informed dining choices. This project qualified for the Improving Student Life, IT for Society, Food Systems, and Global Health categories. After reviewing each category description, the team found their project’s mission fit one category more strongly than the others. Clear definitions and descriptions allow students to make better choices about which category is the strongest fit for their project.
  • Balance Funding/Growth Opportunities with Mission & Goals. There is no shortage of good ideas or potential categories. One challenge in running an ideas contest is to remain consistent with the mission and goals of the Contest, while also remaining “advantageously opportunist” towards new ideas and sponsorship opportunities.The first year that the Blum Center managed the Big Ideas contest, the Contest consisted of sixteen categories. Many categories overlapped, some were too narrow to draw sufficient student interest, and others were extensions of class research projects. This led to confusion among prospective applicants and was difficult to manage from an administrative standpoint. When considering a new category, or bending to accommodate the desires of (potential) funders, it is important to keep in mind the Contest’s mission along with the criteria for evaluating categories outlined above.
  • Beware of Mission Creep. Securing funding is critical to launching a new category, however the new category must also align with the other “key factors” cited above.  Namely, the new category must also fit within the mission of the Contest, and it should align with the interests and expertise of the collective student body. Managers should collaborate closely with potential sponsors during the category development process, and push back when necessary to ensure that the key category evaluation criteria are met. Developing a category that meets the narrow goals of a sponsor, but is not broad and diverse enough to generate sufficient student interest, will result in a great deal of staff effort with little return on investment. It can stretch available resources to the point where the performance of other categories may suffer as a result.