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The ICON Experience: Bringing Students Together Through Community Engaged Learning

by Gabriel Pothier-Maudsley ICON Alumni, Fall 2016, University of Guelph

With support from RECODE, the Ideas Congress (ICON) class at the University of Guelph offers students a transdisciplinary learning environment designed on the principles of community engaged learning, knowledge translation/transfer, and social innovation. It is a highly unique and impactful course. Read Gabe’s perspective on his transformative experience in the class last autumn.


I am one of the lucky students who somehow found themselves in the outrageous, awesome, Ideas Congress (ICON) class last fall at the University of Guelph. This was a rollercoaster of an experience—and I call it that in only the best of ways. The class began with a warning that it would challenge and reward us, and this proved to be more than a little bit true.
The ICON classroom is unique because it brings together senior students from various disciplines…but this introduces a surprising language barrier between students. We underestimated how much our degree specializations had encouraged us to speak our own “disciplinary language” over the past three years. As a result, the first few weeks of class were a bit bumpy, as we learned how to eliminate jargon and communicate with each other. Our professors taught us “knowledge translation and transfer” (KTT) strategies and, coupled with the group-work format of our class, we had an environment to apply these skills.
Our class partnered with the non-profit community organization
Yorklands Green Hub. They challenged our class to make their idea for an “eco living lab” a reality: a trailer that could travel to and from secondary schools, acting as a classroom for environmental sustainability education. No one individual in our class had the knowledge to do this alone, but we were optimistic that our varied backgrounds, knowledge, and combined experience could make it possible.

Brainstorming ideas was quite daunting at first. An entire whiteboard quickly filled with ideas, ranging from seemingly tame to outlandish. We condensed and categorized these, and formed small groups to take on different tasks: we had the physical design, the visual design, the sustainable energy, the resources for water, the accompanying website, and a framework for the curriculum that would tie it all together.
With a common goal—the creation of the “mobile classroom” for our community partner—we were allied in our work. Every week, our groups collaborated better, forming more productive ideas, and developing tangible objectives, which in turn, the other groups could work off.
…AND THIS is what has made ICON so special. I didn’t feel like I was in a class, I felt like I was part of a team—a team that had to get something important done. My motivation came from the fact that I wasn’t creating just a paper or a presentation, but an actual thing that could be used in the real world.

The unfortunate part of university in general is its isolation from the real world. Perhaps this is particularly pronounced in my program—an Arts degree—but I think many other students feel the same way. We are constantly writing on generic topics, writing on our own, coming up with ideas that feel regurgitated rather than original.
Cite this, cite that. We rarely get to do, create, or be part of team and realize the pressure, but also the reward that comes with it. Being near the end of my university career, I am frequently forced to consider my future prospects and employability. Unfortunately, it isn’t an optimistic outlook. I read in the news and hear it from my friends and family: “the kids coming out of university these days are ill-suited to work. They don’t know what they’re doing.” In some ways, I am inclined to agree. I can write you a damn good essay on colonialism, but I wonder if I can do anything productive for your company or organization?
But ICON was my saving grace. It kicked my ass because I had never learned how to work in this way before. I was never taught communication skills so comprehensively, while immersed in an environment that forces me to practice them. Looking back (and towards the future), I feel tremendously fortunate to have had this hands-on experience in my final year and to know that I’ve been a part of creating something real.

Feb 16, 2017 | Tags: , , ,