The Societal Challenge Lab is the first interdisciplinary course unit at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. The aim of this project was to implement a project-based learning approach to societal challenges, for example, violence in refugee camps on Lesbos. Nina Hansen and Liesbet Heyse will give an overview of the project.
Why did you decide to start this project now? Was there a problem that you wanted to address?
2015 saw a sudden increase in the number of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe by land and sea. Together with Sustainable Society and a few colleagues, Nina Hansen organized a summer school called “Migration matters. Understanding and intervening the societal phenomenon of migration”. Liesbet Heyse and Nina Hansen developed the didactical program for small student groups who were working on different challenges in the field of migration . The ultimate aims were, firstly, to improve our understanding of what migrants experience between leaving their home and arriving in the EU and, secondly, to identify gaps (i.e. conduct a problem analysis) and develop a new evidence-based intervention method to improve current practice and policy (e.g. violence in refugee camps on Lesbos, the empowerment of women, creating a sense of belonging in the neighbourhood). We were impressed by the learning process that took place among students, teachers, refugees and societal actors. We were so enthusiastic that we looked for another opportunity to implement this teaching approach more sustainably in our Faculty. The programme directors and Vice Dean in our Faculty were very supportive and helped us to implement the Societal Challenge Lab as the first interdisciplinary course unit in our Faculty. Each year, we select a different societal challenge for students to work on.
What did you want to achieve with the project and what were its benefits?
Our aim was to implement a project-based learning approach. Students learn to conduct a systematic problem analysis, to design an evidence-based intervention method or policy to improve current practice, and to monitor and evaluate their proposal. At the end of the course unit, they have to present their proposals to an expert panel of practitioners. These are all skills that prepare them for integrating their academic education with their future career. A quote from a student illustrates what this approach can achieve: ‘I really liked the course unit because we were asked to present our proposal in front of a critical and distinguished expert panel. We had to break out of the ivory tower, learning about the practical issues that policymakers and other stakeholders face, and learning to incorporate scientific evidence and practical challenges during the process of developing an intervention’ (second-year Bachelor’s student of Psychology, UG).
What elements are you proud of?
The meetings of the Societal Challenge Lab showed that connecting academia and society can be rewarding for all parties. The engagement of students, scientists and experts from society contributed to this exciting learning experience for all the parties involved – bridging academia and society to contribute to sustainable development. This year, the lab was selected as one example of project-based learning which was mentioned in a video .
What problems did you encounter? Given what you know now, what would you have done differently?
After the first year, we realized that working in diverse teams from different social science disciplines and cultural backgrounds, and studying in a Bachelor’s or Master’s programme under time pressure, can be very challenging for some teams. In the first year, we therefore spent quite some time on coaching the teams. This year, we were able to hire Luzia Heu, a PhD student in social psychology, to help us develop an additional course unit to teach and coach students in their team process/dynamics.
What advice would you give to someone starting a similar project?
Project-based learning teaches students to apply their scientific knowledge and methods to address societal challenges. Based on our experience, it is crucial to select societal actors who are also interested in learning and devoting time to this learning experience.
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