HomeEducationGrand Challenge CoursesPreparing students to save the world

Preparing students to save the world

University of Minnesota students aren’t going to be able to save the world single-handed. But they’re increasingly equipped to lend a big hand to the effort, thanks to a series of Grand Challenge Curriculum courses launched last year. The Grand Challenge Curriculum umbrella intended to immerse graduate and undergraduate students in complex challenges facing the world.

Grand Challenge Curriculum courses are solutions-driven and address a broad set of global grand challenges, from reconciliation and justice after war to developing a renewable energy system. Fall 2016’s courses focus on feeding the world while sustaining the environment, addressing global health issues, designing start-up companies with social or environmental impact in mind, and understanding the social, economic and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Registration opens in April and is open to graduate and undergraduate students of all colleges.

“The Grand Challenge Curriculum was developed to provide students with opportunities to grapple with important and complex global problems from multiple disciplinary perspectives,” says Leslie Schiff, associate dean for the University curriculum. “The courses are taught by interdisciplinary teams of faculty, and, because they don’t have prerequisites, they draw from a diverse student body, so that the students themselves bring interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving.”

To help understand the value and impact of the curriculum, we caught up with Barrett Colombo, who supports GCC instructors in course development. Colombo coordinates education efforts at the Institute on the Environment, which is a supporting partner of the curriculum and has helped develop three of the four courses offered next semester. 

Why would students want to take a GCC course?

Grand Challenge Curriculum courses provide an unconventional course structure that opens students’ eyes to new perspectives on the challenges they are studying but also requires them to collaborate in creating solutions. Students are given a rich introduction to a complex and interdisciplinary challenge. However, GCC courses are different in that they deliberately move beyond the problem to understanding how students can actually contribute to solutions. This emphasis on teaching the skills required to translate between problem and action is at the heart of what makes a grand challenge course unique.

In addition, students are coached by an interdisciplinary team of the University’s best faculty. Each course includes instructors from at least two different colleges, and usually from disparate disciplines (e.g., nursing and business, public policy and engineering). 

What makes the courses unique?

GCC courses are unique in that they actively examine how challenges are shaping the world and affecting real people in real time. In addition to gaining a rigorous understanding of key content, students are introduced to effective skills for translating understanding into action. These life and career skills are critical no matter an individual’s disciplinary background, and emphasize effective communication, problem scoping and systems thinking.

When developing solutions to address the course’s grand challenge, students are guided by instructors and exposed to perspectives of professionals working on similar challenges. Students often hear from a broad range of leaders from companies, non-governmental organizations and government. And course instructors act as coaches and advisors, connecting interested students to individuals and opportunities — other courses within the University, internships, fellowships, informational resources — that might allow them to develop their own solutions beyond the course.

Can anyone take these courses?

Yes. Grand challenge courses do not have prerequisites. In fact, students in recent GCC courses have said that one thing that makes the courses so powerful is working through these challenges with students from other degree programs.

For example, one grand challenge course last year included students from 26 different majors across seven schools and colleges at the U.

Fall 2016 GCC list:

Can we feed the world without destroying it? (GCC 3001/5001)
Seeking an answer to the question outlined in the course title, this course tackles the fundamental changes occurring in the global food system, the environment and our civilization as a whole.

Instructors: Jason Hill, Associate Professor, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences and Institute on the Environment Fellow; David Tilman, Regents Professor and McKnight University Professor in the College of Biological Sciences and IonE Fellow.

The fracking boom: Challenges and perils of the hydrocarbon renaissance (GCC 3004)
This course considers how fracking has transformed political, economic and environmental challenges related to developing a sustainable energy system.

Instructors: Maximiliano Bezada, Assistant Professor, College of Science and Engineering; Bruce Braun, Professor, College of Liberal Arts.

Seeking solutions to global health issues (GCC 5003)
This course considers challenges to global health at the nexus of human, animal and environmental health. Questions include: How is health influenced by development policy, climate change, war and poverty? How do cows, lions, forests, deserts and farmers influence human health? What is the role of entrepreneurs, governance, NGOs and schools in crafting new solutions?

Instructors: Cheryl Robertson, Associate Professor, School of Nursing and IonE Fellow; Fred Rose, Program Director, Acara.

Global Venture Design: What impact will you make? (GCC 5005)
This course considers how small teams of motivated individuals can move from understanding a global problem — renewable energy, food security, public health threats — to creating meaningful impact through small business start-ups.

Instructors: Fred Rose, Program Director, Acara; Steve Kelley, Senior Fellow, Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Photo: franckreporter (iStock)

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