Sunday, 16 January 2011

Are we underestimating undergraduates?

As an 18 year old entering year 12, I had a strong, naieve passion to save the world. I heard the scientists calling out for action - real action quickly - and I felt inspired. But without any knowledge how could I possibly contribute? The answer seemed clear. I would go to university, study Environmental Science and then I would be ready.

So I enrolled in a Bachelor of Environmental Science at Monash university. It was a real challenge at first. I hadn't taken any science subjects at school and here I was, suddenly plunged into the world of chemistry, biology and physics. But I had a driving purpose and that motivated me to work hard. I put in the hours and I got the grades, achieving high distinctions in many of my subjects.

I learnt a lot. I learnt a lot about basic science. I learnt a lot about environmental policy and management. About ecology, climatology, statistics, geology, geography, botany and biotechnology. I met a group of people, who were also passionate about saving the world. I discovered what I was passionate about. Most importantly, I learnt how to learn.

Two months ago, I took a bold step. I volunteered to organise and run a youth sustainability action forum as part of OzGreen's YOUth LEADing the World event. Working with the terrific people at OzGreen, I brought together a group of passionate university students and was bowled over by what happened. We formed a team, united by a powerful desire to stop climate change in its tracks. We shared our fears, our hopes and supported and empowered each other to come up with solutions to climate change. Solutions, that we as young people could make happen. It wasn't about re-engineering the world's climatic systems by shooting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. It wasn't about negotiating a binding, yet flexible global carbon emissions agreement. It was about creating community gardens, which would spark a love of nature in even the staunchest climate sceptic. It was about a neighbourhood, a suburb, a city, a country, a planet supporting each other to take achievable steps to sustainability that would sum to an enormous change. It was about action that we could take now.

I finished that forum more inspired and energised than I have ever felt in my life. For the first time in my university career I had taken real action towards my goal of saving the world. Shortly afterwards, I had a brutal realisation: I learnt more in the six weeks organising and running YOUth LEADing Melbourne than I had in my entire degree.

I started thinking about how much time I had invested in my university education. All up, it has been roughly 2400 hours. Although I have learnt much during this time, I now strongly believe that the return on my time investment has been very low. Much of what I learnt was academic knowledge that I will not use and have mostly already forgotten. The key learnings and experiences came not from my classes but from simply being in the university environment. After YOUth LEADing the World, I now realise that university is not the only place to get those experiences and those learnings. To be frank, if I knew what I know now, I would not have enrolled in my degree.

A different university experience
I am now doing honours in biochemistry, studying the rare neurodegenerative disease spinocerebellar ataxia-3. Why this area, when my passion has been and still is in sustainability? I chose the project because I recognised that my supervisor, Professor Stephen Bottomley, would be a fantastic academic mentor. It was not about the content that I would learn, but the process of becoming a researcher.

I started the year having never taken a single biochemistry subject. I had never spent any time in a biochemistry lab. It sounds like a recipe for failure and it was.

For the first six months I was completely out of my depth. I spent eight weeks frantically struggling to understand the fundamentals of biochemistry that were relevant to my project, so that I could write a comprehensive literature review. I was completed engaged in this work because it was mine. I then started in the lab and made mistake after mistake, betrayed by little, destructive habits. It was hard, and many times I wanted to give up, but I always had support from Stephen and the other leaders in the lab.

Gradually I got my head around things. Gradually I started to improve. While I have not finished my honours year yet, I am now confident that I will get there and that I will come out with a fantastic grounding in science that will serve me in whatever I do in the future. Furthermore, I am confident that I will obtain research findings that will one day lead to a cure to a devastating neurodegenerative disease. I feel valued.

A new vision for university
Did this experience have to wait until my fourth year of university? Was I really so unprepared, so useless as a first year undergraduate that I could contribute nothing? Was I really so weak, so lacking in courage that I could not have dealt with the inevitable failures from being dropped into a project beyond my capabilities?

I believe undergraduate students are capable of much more and that university could and should be based around experiences like YOUth LEADing the World and my honours project. Experiences that challenge students and engage them in the learning process. Instead of having lecturers, students could have academic mentors, who would push them out into the real world, watch them fall and then pick them up again and walk with them until they are ready to walk on their own.

Recently there has been pressure for Australian universities to either focus on research or on teaching. Talented researchers should be left in peace to do great work and not have to worry about students demanding to know whether this topic will be on the exam. I believe this attitude is short sighted in the extreme. While in the short term, more research might get done, where will the star researchers of the future come from?

Universities are focused on the impact they can have on the world. To put it mathematically, Impact = Value x Leverage. Concentrating on research to the detriment of teaching is concentrating on the value side of the equation and ignoring the leverage potential. I believe that a skilled researcher, who understands how to teach and mentor, can inspire a generation of new researchers. Their personal impact is magnified immensely by passing on their passion and knowledge to a group of students and engaging those students in research. In the long term, their research output is far greater than what they could achieve on their own. That small investment of time is repaid one-hundred fold as those students go on to be the star researchers of the future.

I believe this kind of university experience is possible for all students and all disciplines. I believe all students can be researchers and all researchers can be teachers. I believe this change is possible and desirable and I believe it can happen quickly. I want to act now to help make this happen.

No comments: