It is generally acknowledged that the complex challenges facing society, the economy and the environment cannot be solved by one discipline working in isolation. These challenges have an impact on all of us and need collaborative and innovative solutions. Where better to look for fresh thinking on enduring challenges than the upcoming generation of talent in our student populations? Mix students from a variety of disciplines, provide them with data sources, support and training to innovate, and you can not only generate fresh ideas, but also create lifelong change agents. In the process, students can fast-track their personal and professional development, increase their confidence, and build networks with peers and external organisations.
Fostering enterprise and innovation
At the University of Edinburgh, we have been experimenting with this approach through the Students as Change Agents (SACHA) programme. The idea originated as a collaboration between the Careers Service and the University’s Student Enterprise team as a means to foster enterprise skills amongst participating students and provide opportunities for potential recruiters to experience first-hand the ingenuity and passion of our students. We were funded by the University’s Data Driven Innovation programme to pilot a programme which would harness the power of data for social change and introduce local organisations to data-informed innovation. This programme was originally developed for all disciplines from arts, humanities and social sciences to STEM, so some of its approaches and findings could, in principle, be applied to the life sciences.
Students apply to be part of the online, co-curricular programme based on their interest in the challenge topics. Challenges have been wide-ranging, covering issues such as youth homelessness, overconsumption in the fashion industry, designing out waste in construction and rebuilding Edinburgh’s tourism and festivals sustainably post COVID19. Each challenge addresses at least three of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and the programme outcomes provide evidence of the University’s commitment to contributing towards their progress.
Students work in small interdisciplinary groups and receive training in teamwork and human-centred design thinking (a problem-solving approach that involves the human perspective in all the stages), and support with using data to solve problems. Their outputs, in the form of short videos and impact reports, are then used by the host organisations posing the challenges to inform their thinking, shape services, and support advocacy and policy work. Student participants have reported applying the skills and confidence they gained through the programme in their university studies, as well as in their professional lives, in applying for jobs and making use of them in work. Some participants have also gone on to develop their ideas further, speak at conferences and consultation events and, in some cases, undertake further research or paid employment for the host organisation.
Mix it up
While a mix of disciplines is vital to push students out of their comfort zones and stimulate fresh thinking in a challenge programme, the subject areas do not need to be completely diverse. Working with peers from neighbouring disciplines, such as those within the life sciences, can still help students develop an awareness of their own disciplinary thinking style, and an appreciation of the value of the diversity of other styles. This diversity should ideally also encompass other characteristics, such as year of study, gender and nationality. One of the benefits of this diverse, interdisciplinary approach is that it can simulate the sorts of scenarios graduates are likely to face at work, and help prepare them for this.
The SACHA programme uses human-centred design thinking to help students work through the process of thinking differently and creatively about challenges. This tends to be new and sometimes daunting for the majority of participants, so support is required to encourage them to embrace this approach. We achieve this by using Mural, an online collaboration tool, and giving students a step-by-step walk-through of partially pre-populated ‘whiteboards’ as a starting point. It is vital that staff are on-hand to support those who may have technical issues, or need reassuring to take risks and trust the process.
We have found that PhD students in particular have struggled with this ‘out of the box’ thinking, preferring to rely on more familiar, ‘tried and tested’ methods of drilling down into a challenge question and looking for data which will help them answer it. Given that there are no right answers to the complex challenges we are posing, and often insufficient data, stepping into the unknown is necessary but can be problematic for those at this level of study. We have found that putting PhD students together with undergraduates and Master’s level students makes them more open to experimentation. PhD-only programmes require more time to be invested at the outset, to outline the benefits of the design thinking approach, and encourage experimentation and risk-taking.
Build data confidence
Students from different disciplines and levels of study will inevitably have different levels of understanding of data and varying degrees of ability in using it to inform innovative thinking. An innovative solution to this problem has been to employ students (mostly at Master’s level) as ‘Data Coaches’. This sort of peer support has proven successful due to its flexibility and relatability. It is also an excellent paid development opportunity for the student employees.
Focus on the future
Challenge-led, experiential learning can nurture an impressive array of skills in students. Much of this skills’ development can be planned into the programme – for example, teamwork, communication, critical thinking, using data to tackle problems, and public speaking. Others have often been serendipitous by-products, such as collaborating online, overcoming challenges, leadership, and resilience. Most importantly of all, whether by design or coincidence, participants in a well-designed challenge programme will leave with increased confidence and self-awareness, and the belief that they can and should make change in the world.