Grand Challenges and the New Car Smell

It has been a crazy week so far. In between launching the new course and attending a number of important presentations, our Executive Dean, Professor Peter Dowd, is leaving the role after 8 years and we’re all getting ready for the handover. At time of writing, I’m sitting in an airport lounge in Adelaide Airport waiting for my flight to Melbourne to go and talk about the Learning and Teaching Academy of which I’m a Fellow so, given that my post queue is empty and that I want to keep up my daily posting routine, today’s post may be a little rushed. (As one of my PhD students pointed out, the typos are creeping in anyway, so this shouldn’t be too much of a change. Thanks, T. 🙂 )

The new course that I’ve been talking about, which has a fairly wide scope with high performing students, has occupied five hours this week and it has been both very exciting and a little daunting. The student range is far wider than usual: two end-of-degree students, three start-of-degree students, one second year and one internal exchange student from the University of Denver. As you can guess, in terms of learning design, this requires me to have a far more flexible structure than usual and I go into each activity with the expectation that I’m going to have to be very light on my feet.

I’ve been very pleased by two things in the initial assessment: firstly, that the students have been extremely willing to be engage with the course and work with me and each other to build knowledge, and secondly, that I have the feeling that there is no real ‘top end’ for this kind of program. Usually, when I design something, I have to take into account our general grading policies (which I strongly agree with) that are not based on curve grading and require us to provide sufficient assessment opportunities and types to give students the capability to clearly demonstrate their ability. However, part of my role is pastoral, so that range of opportunities has to be carefully set so that a Pass corresponds to ‘acceptable’ and I don’t set the bar so high that people pursuing a High Distinction (A+) don’t destroy their prospects in other courses or burn out.

I’ve stressed the issues of identity and community in setting up this course, even accidentally referring to the discipline as Community Science in one of my intro slides, and the engagement level of the students gives me the confidence that, as a group, they will be able to develop each other’s knowledge and give them some boosting – on top of everything and anything that I can provide. This means that the ‘top’ level of achievements are probably going to be much higher than before, or at least I hope so. I’ve identified one of my roles for them as “telling them when they’ve done enough”, much as I would for an Honours or graduate student, to allow me to maintain that pastoral role and to stop them from going too far down the rabbit hole.

Yesterday, I introduced them to R (statistical analysis and graphical visualisation) and Processing (a rapid development and very visual programming language) as examples of tools that might be useful for their projects. In fairly short order, they were pushing the boundaries, trying new things and, from what I could see, enjoying themselves as they got into the idea that this was exploration rather than a prescribed tool set. I talked about the time burden of re-doing analysis and why tools that forced you to use the Graphical User Interface (clicking with the mouse to move around and change text) such as Excel had really long re-analysis pathways because you had to reapply a set of mechanical changes that you couldn’t (easily) automate. Both of the tools that I showed them could be set up so that you could update your data and then re-run your analysis, do it again, change something, re-run it, add a new graph, re-run it – and it could all be done very easily without having to re-paste Column C into section D4 and then right clicking to set the format or some such nonsense.

It’s too soon to tell what the students think because there is a very “new car smell” about this course and we always have the infamous, if contested, Hawthorne Effect, where being obviously observed as part of a study tends to improve performance. Of course, in this case, the students aren’t part of an experiment but, given the focus, the preparation and the new nature – we’re in the same territory. (I have, of course, told the students about the Hawthorne Effect in loose terms because the scope of the course is on solving important and difficult problems, not on knee-jerk reactions to changing the colour of the chair cushions. All of the behaviourists in the audience can now shake their heads, slowly.)

Early indications are positive. On Monday I presented an introductory lecture laying everything out and then we had a discussion about the course. I assigned some reading (it looked like 24 pages but was closer to 12) and asked students to come in with a paragraph of notes describing what a Grand Challenge was in their own words, as well as some examples. The next day, less than 24 hours after the lecture, everyone showed up and, when asked to write their description up on the white board, all got up and wrote it down – from their notes. Then they exchanged ideas, developed their answers and I took pictures of them to put up on our forum. Tomorrow, I’ll throw these up and ask the students to keep refining them, tracking their development of their understanding as they work out what they consider to be the area of grand challenges and, I hope, the area that they will start to consider “their” area – the one that they want to solve.

If even one more person devotes themselves to solving an important problem to be work then I’ll be very happy but I’ll be even happier if most of them do, and then go on to teach other people how to do it. Scale is the killer so we need as many dedicated, trained, enthusiastic and clever people as we can  – let’s see what we can do about that.



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