Wrapping up Grand Challenges

We had the final ‘farewell’ function for the end of my Grand Challenges course on Friday. While I would normally see most of these students again, as this is a first year course, one of them was a US exchange student who is flying home this morning to return to his own college system. I wanted to bring everyone together, in an informal setting, to say well done and farewell. It has been a remarkable semester. For me, now, digging through the student comments and feedback will drive a lot of my thinking for the next version of the course and the comments are very, very interesting. Students reflecting on the fact that they didn’t quite understand why they learned about the grand challenges in the first place, until we were knee deep in questionable ethics and the misapplication of Science, and then *bang* it all settled into place. Yes, this is what I intended but, frankly, it’s a little bit of a high risk strategy to construct scaffolding in that way and I had to carefully monitor the group dynamics, as well as making sure that the group had enough elements in it that we could achieve a good environment in which to reflect and develop. I, by myself, cannot be a full member of the group and I’m always going to be the outsider because, well, I have to be in order to function in the course coordinator and marker role.

Next year, we already have a lot of interest in the new course and this is very exciting. I’m not sure how many will roll up but I do know that I cannot handle a group larger than 8 with the current approach – hence, as I’ve said before, I now need to take all of the comments and work on scaling it up. Sitting around the table on Friday night, talking to all of the students, it really sank in that we (as a group) had achieved something pretty special. I couldn’t have done it without them and (I suspect) a lot of them weren’t quite ready to do it without me. What I saw around the table was passion, confidence, enthusiasm and curiosity. There was also some well-deserved pride when the final poster prints were handed out. I had their first projects professionally printed on Tyvek, a plastic material that is waterproof, hard to tear and really tough, so that their posters will go anywhere and hang up, without risking becoming sad and daggy old faded relics with tears and dog ears. The posters were the result of 6 weeks of work, hence some respect was due to their construction.

I’m not a very reserved person, which will come as no surprise to any of you, and people generally know what I’m feeling (with the usual caveat that I can appear delighted by the questionable musical practices of children and fascinated in meetings). My students will therefore know that I am pleased by what they have achieved and what, by their enthusiasm and willingness to go with a non-traditional structure, we have managed to achieve together. Was it perfect? No. I need to cater for students who are in transition more and remember that just because students can perform well academically, it does not magically grant them the associated maturity or ability to handle the unforeseen. It could certainly have been better organised and that was really down to the experimental nature of the course combined with my schedule. I was too busy, sometimes, to be as forward looking as I should have been (I was looking weeks out, rather than months). That will not happen next year. What’s really interesting is what my colleagues assume about these students. “Oh, they’re smart so they must have done all this maths or love maths or something.” No, they don’t. They come in with the usual range of courses you’d expect from students and have the usual range of likes and dislikes. They are, in a nutshell, students who happen to have worked out how to perform well under assessment. As it turns out, a GPA or ATAR (SAT) mark does not summarise a student, nor does achieving the same grade make you the same person. Shocking, I know.

But, snark aside, what a great experience and, from early indications, I am pretty confident that some of these students now have a completely different set of lenses through which to view the world. Now, of course, it is up to them. You might think that my posturing on an apolitical stance is just that, a posturing facade, but I am deadly serious about not imposing my political beliefs on my students. Yes, I firmly believe that there are a set of ethical standards that people in my discipline (Computer Science) and my calling (Education) should adhere to, but how you vote? None of my business. Next year, I hope to bring in more people from industry, more entrepreneurs, possibly even some more ‘challenging’ viewpoints. The world is complicated and the intellectual challenges are many. Me training students in dogma does nothing. Me training students in how they can think for themselves and then genuinely standing back to say “That was the toolkit, it’s up to you what you build” will truly test me and them.

Far too many times I’ve held forth on silly little points where I was wrong, or misinterpreting, and it didn’t help anything. I’ve always learned more from discussion than argument, and from informed disagreement rather than blind agreement. That’s the fine print on the PhD, as I read it, “be prepared to be wrong and then work out how to be right.”

If I were ever to work myself almost to collapse again, taking on too much, striving to develop an entirely new course for a new type of student that we haven’t really catered to before, while doing everything else – I would hope that at the end of the year, I could look back on something like Grand Challenges and nod, with satisfaction, because it worked. I’m looking forward to bouncing ideas off the course members over the next 6 months to get their feedback on the new direction, possibly using these students as mentors and tutors (good idea, MH) to help me run the course and to keep building the community. That’s what it was always about, after all. Yes, it was a course for students who could handle the academics but it was always about the biggest Grand Challenge of them all: getting people to work together to solve problems.

Turn on the news and you’ll see lot of problems at the moment. Running up to (yet another) end of the world, we are once again taking the crazy pills and, bluntly, it scares me. We have a lot of problems to solve and that will take people, working together, sharing, talking and using available resources to try and deal with things that could potentially¬†destroy our species. If you have the opportunity to tun any kind of program that could assist with this – problem solving, community building, team formation, outreach to other schools, or whatever – please consider doing so. I’ll tell you, honestly, it’s one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done and I’ve been privileged to be able to do a lot of cool things.

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