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​Embedding innovation into undergraduate education

by Kelly J Hodgins Coordinator of the Feeding 9 Billion initiative at the University of Guelph

Undergraduate education is undergoing a significant shift, and the progressive institutions are worth paying attention to.

Recently, the
Provost at Purdue instigated a deep investigation into the need to embed innovation into undergraduate education. Here at home, RECODE works with universities and colleges across Canada to test ways to “re-code” undergraduate pedagogies. These efforts to disembark from the typical undergraduate textbook-lecture-exam-style of education signal that change within higher education is a serious priority for major thought leaders.
The questionable value of an undergraduate degree is not a new conversation. I grew up hearing it from my mum regarding her “never used” B.Sc., and my dad who stayed far from “that institution”. Twenty years later, my cousin debates the merit of
not returning to her B.A. every September. This conversation finds its way into articles ranging from student-run papers to national news outlets, though these days, the debate is far more nuanced. No longer are we debating bachelor’s degree vs. no bachelor’s degree. Instead, we are asking how can the bachelor’s degree be different?
At the University of Guelph, we are experimenting with new ways of learning. Our work around experiential learning and innovation takes a food-security focus—attracting students who are tired of learning about food-systems problems, and interested in
doing something about them.
Last week we hosted our
Feeding 9 Billion Challenge, a 30-hour “design jam” of sorts, which brought teams of students together representing over 20 disciplines. By giving up their weekend during midterm season, these students demonstrated that there’s an enormous appetite to make change and do something about problems in the world. And do something they did! Obviously, only the most passionate students would commit to such an experience, so those who were there were REALLY there. With the help of facilitators, these teams underwent a fast-paced, sometimes chaotic, seriously motivating crash-course in social innovation (a skill set seldom taught to undergrads anywhere), and emerged 30 hours later with six incredible project ideas.

Super, you say. But what can one weekend event do to change undergraduate education? Very little—right! These students still had to go home, study for midterms, finish assignments for Monday, and catch up on sleep. Essentially, their participation in the Challenge provided them a novel opportunity for interdisciplinary, socially innovative education, but at the expense of their existing coursework. That’s where we need to make the real change.
Luckily for these passionate students, a second phase exists—one which offers them course credit (the most valuable currency for any undergraduate student). In January, Challenge participants will register for the unique ”
Ideas Congress” course. The 50 participants are equipped with Knowledge Translation and Transfer training to communicate effectively across their varied disciplines (and outside of academia), and provided the space, time and mentorship to foster the project ideas they conceived during Challenge weekend.
This—a non-discipline-specific, real-world-based course, that puts innovation first—is not what we think of in our debates over the value of a bachelor’s degree.
this is the change we’ve been waiting for. More importantly, it’s the change our students have been waiting for!

We knew we were on-track when a young changemaker told us after her participation in the Feeding 9 Billion Challenge: “I wish all professors used this great student-engaged learning approach, because I will remember this more than any other course material, no matter how interesting

This is
a clear signal of the way that undergraduate education has to go, or go extinct.

Kelly J Hodgins is a farm-grown, small-town raised food-justice and agriculture advocate. She is the enthusiastic coordinator of the Feeding 9 Billion initiative at the University of Guelph, where she has the privilege of working with young changemakers crafting a healthier food system.

Nov 9, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,