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New college graduates: How well prepared to be global problem-solvers?

A growing number of colleges and universities have been redesigning their curriculum to prepare students to be problem-solvers for the world. 'We’re exploring not just the solution to an individual problem, but how that problem fits into a larger picture,' says one professor.

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    The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year $650,000 grant to two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professors to develop Geo Explorer, a game that will allow engineering students to inspect, design, and test flood protection systems virtually.
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Kevin Lyman has a shiny new degree in computer science. But instead of tossing a cap during Saturday’s commencement ceremony at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., he was busy relocating a company that he started with fellow students to Mountain View, Calif.

The business, Resumazing, uses artificial intelligence to knock down a hurdle for job seekers: Often the skills for doing a job well aren’t the same as the skills needed for landing a job. This tool will help a great engineer or a talented artist tailor her resume for particular jobs she’s pursuing.

Mr. Lyman couldn’t have launched his career as a serial entrepreneur (yes, he’s already been involved with other startups) without the interdisciplinary teamwork cultivated among students and professors at RPI. Six-month jobs with multinational companies like Microsoft, through the school’s Co-op program, didn’t hurt either.

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RPI is among a growing number of colleges and universities that have been redesigning their curriculum to prepare students to be problem-solvers for the world.

While higher education has long sought to boost study abroad and promote cross-cultural understanding, an “emerging trend is a focus less on knowledge acquisition and more on applied and integrative skill development … in real-world settings,” says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) in Washington.

RPI undergraduates have opportunities to work on research and projects that make a difference in a community: helping a nearby town make its parks website more interactive, or using a supercomputer and a “plankton cam” to analyze a major lake’s ecosystem – and then developing a virtual reality game to let the public learn about it by swimming with the plankton. They compete for monetary prizes in the Change the World Challenge.

“In a lot of the work we do, we’re exploring not just the solution to an individual problem, but how that problem fits into a larger picture,” says Jim Hendler, a professor and director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Application.

The shift is happening in response to two main factors: Research has been showing a range of positive effects on student learning when they do hands-on projects and interdisciplinary research, and employers have been clamoring for more of the skills that such activities foster, Ms. Humprheys says.

There’s strong agreement between students and employers about what kinds of skills are valued, according to a December 2014 survey of 400 employers and 600 college students, ages 18 to 29, who were within a year of attaining a degree. It was commissioned by AAC&U and found:

• Ninety-four percent of students and 96 percent of employees agree that “all college students should have experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.”

• Applying knowledge in real-world settings was among the top five skills valued by both employers and students.

• About 3/4 of students have done or plan to do a senior/thesis project demonstrating depth of knowledge and skills in research, problem-solving, and communication.

But students and employers have different views on how well colleges prepare them. The survey asked:

• Are recent graduates well prepared to analyze and solve complex problems? Fifty-nine percent of students say yes; only 24 percent of employers agree.

• Are they staying current on global developments? Forty-three percent of students say yes, vs. 18 percent of employers.

• Do they have good ethical judgment and decisionmaking skills? Sixty-two percent of students say yes, vs. 30 percent of employers.

Opportunities to do “signature work” as an undergraduate have long existed, but now more universities are moving those “from the margins to the center,” Humphreys says.

One pioneer of this idea is Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Mass., which radically altered its approach in 1970 so that all students would have to complete two significant projects – one in their major field of study and one that involved interdisciplinary teamwork to address a problem.

Over the years, the opportunity to do such projects off campus grew as professors saw the beneficial effects of students venturing outside their comfort zones. About 70 percent of students now do at least one project off campus, many of them in centers abroad where they are guided by WPI faculty and work with local partners.

For students, these experiences aren’t just about strengthening resumes. “It surprised us how many alumni cited the projects as being responsible for helping them develop a stronger personal character … and that came with being asked to do something that mattered to somebody else,” says Richard Vaz, dean of WPI’s Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division.

About 7 out of 10 alumni from the classes of 1974 to 2011 reported in a survey that their project work at WPI had contributed “much” or “very much” to their ability to develop ideas, integrate information from multiple sources, solve problems, and take responsibility for learning.

For recent graduate Tushar Narayan, Worcester was his cross-cultural experience. A native of India, his first-year Great Problems Seminar involved researching solar lighting and water solutions for an African village. In his junior year, he and five teammates worked on a project called “Civil Good.” They put together recommendations for an outside sponsor who wanted to understand how a website could be structured to encourage anonymous online discussions of sensitive topics -- without straying into name-calling or unproductive tangents.

As a computer scientist, Mr. Narayan says, “I look at the problems from one approach, but the biology major looks at it differently…. [Working on teams] allows me not to get shoe-horned.”

Science and technology institutions aren’t the only ones embracing the applied learning and signature project approach.

At Stanford University, students from any discipline can take courses in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, aka, the “d.school.” There they learn how design thinking can influence their own studies, and can work with faculty mentors on projects, such as envisioning future models of education. At the College of Wooster in Ohio, every student must complete an independent research project. Becker College in Worcester, Mass., just announced it will be the first US institution to host an officially sanctioned Yunus Social Business Centre, which will provide opportunities for students to apply skills to socially conscious business projects around the world.

In addition to technological proficiency, “we want our students to have intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view,” says RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist. “The problems we face are inherently global…. Rensselaer people have made a difference through the years” she says, and the changes afoot are meant “to give modern meaning to that legacy.”

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the kind of computer degree that Kevin Lyman earned.]

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