'Grand challenge': U sees power in unconventional classes

On the U campus
University of Minnesota students and workers walk through the Minneapolis campus in October 2015.
Russell Barnes | MPR News 2015

Jacob Rorem is pursuing a Ph.D. in theater, so it's easy to think he might have wandered accidentally into this University of Minnesota lecture hall discussion on northern Minnesota forestry.

But this is a different kind of science class, one designed to fit with Rorem's artistic pursuits.

Rebecca Montgomery, an associate professor in the U's Department of Forest Resources, team-teaches the course with two other professors. One is an artist, another a scientist. Together, they talk about how combining the two very different fields of science and art might address climate change.

"The class is really looking at how can we use art as something to engage with climate change," Rorem said, "So it's something that sort of lined up with what I'm interested in."

The forestry class is one of a group of Grand Challenge Initiative courses the U is experimenting with this school year, pairing professors from different disciplines to teach courses on the globe's large-scale challenges.

University officials see the courses as a way to make higher education more relevant to students. The U's campus curriculum committee has started to discuss having students take one or more courses during their time at the U. University leaders are weighing whether to make these courses mandatory for graduation.

Last semester, there were five Grand Challenge courses. Nine are being offered this semester. The classes tend to have a broad mixture of students from different schools within the U. While the course can count toward some majors and minors, they can also knock off liberal education requirements.

This meshing of disciplines is part of the Grand Challenge Initiative at the University of Minnesota. President Eric Kaler wants the university, in research and curriculum, to take on major issues facing the world.

In addition to climate change, the issues the U has identified include poverty and hunger. This school year, the U added classes for undergraduates to the initiative.

"From my perspective, this is probably the most interesting and exciting curricular initiative that I've been involved with in 20 years," said Bob McMaster, the university's dean of undergraduate education. "The student is really going to gain a terrific perspective on that particular problem that they're not going to get if it's simply taught by a faculty member in a department."

McMaster sees a trend toward this kind of teaching at schools across the country.

"The direction that academia is going, as fast as they can, is in more integration of the curriculum and more interdisciplinary kinds of activities," he said.

Rorem doesn't often sit in on science courses, but he found Montgomery's course an intriguing balance between climate science and public art.

"It's also hard to get such an interdisciplinary class at the U," Rorem said. "As much as we like interdisciplinary, we're still stuck in system of departments. So to be able to take a class with three different faculty from three different departments with a bunch of students from all sorts of different departments is a really cool opportunity."

Nick Heller, a sophomore computer science major, was looking for a class outside of his norm. He took a grand challenge class last semester that looked at whether the human population, as it grows, can be fed without destroying the earth.

"Most of my classes are really straight forward. You come in, the professor knows everything, you don't know anything, the professor tries to teach you things, then you regurgitate them on the exam," Heller said.

"Grand challenge is completely different than that," he added. "It was more of an open discussion, where the professor had a lot of information that might be useful for finding the answer but we kind of explored what the answer looks like."

One of his professors, Jason Hill of the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems, said a key element to the Grand Challenge curriculum is showing students that the solutions to these big questions aren't black and white.

"When the professors themselves are disagreeing over the answer to a question like that, imagine how the students are approaching this and what they're thinking," Hill said. "That's the fun of a class like this is that we cannot tell students the answer but rather allow them to discover it for themselves."

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