Answering the Call for Code: Augustana Community Joins IBM’s Challenge to Fight Climate Change

By Jill Wilson | July 20, 2021
SHS Ohara

Pictured: Augustana University President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of Sustainability Dr. David O'Hara.


Visit There, you’ll find information about the Call for Code Global initiative, as well as the 2021 Call for Code Global Challenge that “invites developers and problem-solvers from across the globe to put their coding skills to work to take on the most pressing issue of our time — climate change.” While there, if you look deeper, at the Call for Code’s panel of judges, you’ll notice some nationally, and even internationally known names, including President Bill Clinton, and Clinton Foundation Vice Chair Chelsea Clinton, as well as leaders from the United Nations. But, you’ll also read Augustana University’s name ... twice. 

Augustana President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is joining a group of academic leaders, distinguished advisors and seasoned scholars, serving as a judge for the Call for Code University Challenge. Dr. David O’Hara, professor of environmental studies and director of sustainability, joins six other world-class environmentalists, organization executives and industry pioneers on the 2021 “Expert” judging panel. Those two groups, as well as another panel of “Eminent” judges, will evaluate submissions and select the top tech solutions for deployment.

So, how did Augustana get to be so heavily involved in Call for Code? It began with a long-standing relationship with one of its own, an Augustana alumnus — something the university prides itself in developing and nurturing. 

“I got involved with the Call for Code largely through Dennis Bly — having that connection between Augustana and IBM was key. A lot of it is because we’re the kind of institution that we are. We think about our alumni as people who become our friends, and not just a product. We build close relationships over those four years,” O’Hara said.

Bly, Call for Code University Challenge leader & global offering manager for academic developers at IBM, lives in Atlanta, Georgia, but has a heart for the Midwest. He is from rural southeastern Minnesota, attended Augustana as a wrestler and now serves on the university’s Board of Trustees.

“Augustana was able to provide me with both academic and athletic scholarships, so that’s what ultimately allowed me to become the first in my family to go to college,” said Bly. “From a family-budget perspective, it wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for scholarships. Augustana changed my life, and gave me the opportunity to continue my personal growth, as well as continue my academic and athletic careers at Augustana. Beyond wrestling, I got very involved in the Augustana Student Association, New Student Orientation and was probably one of the least talented folks in Viking Varieties. I really loved my time at Augustana.”

After graduating from AU in 1994, Bly had the opportunity to work for IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, which allowed him to live and work all over the world. Over the past 26 years, he has managed numerous people and programs, and even built new businesses for IBM.

“The past 10 years has provided a dream opportunity for me, allowing me to focus my career on the academic space — how we take new and emerging technologies and support faculty on integrating them into the curriculum. Additionally, it provided the pathway to support the development of master’s programs.” Bly added, “That has led me to the Call for Code mission, which is also focused in the university space, providing unique experiential learning to students.

“When I think about myself as a Viking, as well as an IBMer, Call for Code brings together the important ideals that we hold ourselves to — a passion for doing good, creating sustainable innovation and positively impacting the world.”

And, that’s what Augustana is all about. 

“When we talk about an institution like Augustana, as a liberal arts university, that’s exciting to me, because diverse teams with interdisciplinary skills tend to generate better solutions overall — they have more informed students with different experiences and different backgrounds,” said Bly. “Knowing how well Augustana students have performed at other competitions of this nature, like the Hult Prize Competition, I think Augie has a potential to be very successful in this space.”

Bly said Augustana’s name also appears because of its faculty members; they have the expertise and are more than willing to mentor students through the process. Along with O’Hara, several faculty members, including Drs. Corey Conover, Daniel Gerling and Matthew Willard have assisted students in developing projects related to sustainability on campus that include an outdoor classroom, apple orchard, beekeeping operation, prairie and vegetable garden, indoor aquaponics system, worm composter and a sustainability, tracking, assessment & rating system (STARS) report through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). After announcing the addition of an environmental studies major in the spring of last year, 30 students will be participating in Augustana’s program in the fall of 2021.

“Young people are coming into college on fire. They know we need to act and we need to act now,” O’Hara said reflecting on experiences with his students. “This (competition) really motivates this generation of college students, and that’s a really cool thing for us professors — to help students take their concerns about the world and turn them into action to make a lasting and positive difference.”

This spring, Call for Code entered its fourth year of competition, with entries due at the end of July. And Bly and O’Hara couldn’t be more excited to see what they come up with.

“These are proposals where students are not just thinking, ‘What am I going to do when I get out of school?’ or ‘How am I going to get a job?’ These are students all over the world who are saying, ‘I have these amazing tools at my disposal, and I have an opportunity to work with other people to make a lasting, positive difference for the entire planet.’ Who doesn’t want to work on something like that?” O’Hara said. “Yeah, just the thought of seeing that kind of creativity that’s channeled towards the common good, absolutely thrills me.”

That creativity is already underway — with several Augustana teams getting to work.

Launched in March, this year’s Call for Code submissions opened in April and are due by July 31, with the winners announced in early November. The winning team of the 2021 Call for Code Global Challenge wins $200,000, as well as the support of amazing technologists from IBM, and the Call for Code ecosystem. Student teams are also eligible for the Call for Code University Challenge and the winning team will go home with $10,000. Each member of the winning and second place teams will have the opportunity to interview for a potential role at IBM. Teams will also be competing for regional awards.

Students looking to get involved in the 2021 Call for Code Global Challenge can contact Dr. Matthew Willard or visit

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