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Article by VP of Academic Affairs featured in Prairie Business

An article written by Paul Olson, Vice President of Academic Affairs at University of Jamestown, was recently featured in Prairie Business magazine.

Educating Forward Thinkers by Paul Olson

Few topics are as hot in the world of higher education today as innovation. Those of us in education administration are told repeatedly by employers that they need our graduates to be creative, innovative thinkers who are able to solve problems in collaboration with others. The million-dollar question, of course, is how do we, as institutions of higher education, create a generation of innovators and change agents? I believe the formula includes a mix of the following four methods that I encourage my fellow educators to use to nurture innovators.

Think Big and Holistically
We need to pose big questions to our students to teach them how to think, and these questions need not have anything to do with a student’s major; we have to educate the whole person, not just the professional side of the person. We are much more than what we do for a career and when we educate people to be deep thinkers on a grand scale, not only do they lead richer lives themselves, but their employers and communities benefit as well.

Steve Jobs famously stated that “(t)echnology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” If we want our engineers, computer scientists and biochemists to push the boundaries of their professions and become truly innovative, we need to expose them to the fine arts, literature, history and philosophy. They need to learn how to think abstractly, aesthetically and critically, not just scientifically.

Be Intentional
Innovation might happen accidentally every now and then, but it is much more likely to happen as part of a process in an environment that fosters it. If we want college graduates to be innovative, we need to make students think about being innovative and give them the tools necessary to do so. This can happen with specific courses dedicated to the topic, but it should also be infused throughout the curriculum so students encounter it in a variety of different courses throughout their college careers. Repeated exposure and faculty mentoring will lead students down the road toward metacognition, where they will begin to think about their own thought processes and are better able to see where innovation can happen.

Break Down Silos
Successful businesses around the world have begun to see the benefits of interdisciplinary teams and universities have followed suit by slowly beginning to break down their disciplinary boundaries for improved student and professional learning. Learning communities and team-taught courses make the connections between disciplines overt for students and force them to develop higher-order thinking skills early in their college careers. Students are not the only beneficiaries of interdisciplinary work, however, and recent advances in health research emerging from the collaborative work of social scientists and medical professionals shows great promise for helping us fight everything from obesity to heart disease (see Christakis and Fowler’s Connected for an excellent example of this kind of work).

Forge Partnerships
Finally, universities need the help of the private sector if we truly want innovative graduates. Internships help students transition out of college and into the world of full-time, professional work, but an internship during a student’s senior year should not be the first time a student is exposed to the expertise held in and the problems facing our area’s companies and organizations. Experts from outside the university should be team-teaching courses with professors on a regular basis. Private industries should take advantage of the knowledge and skills of college students beginning in their freshman and sophomore years to address the issues they are facing and to gaze upon problems with fresh eyes. Business administration and engineering departments, for example, should take on the real challenges our area’s businesses are facing to create mutually beneficial relationships through which companies benefit from faculty and student expertise and work and the students benefit from the mentoring and knowledge of professionals.

In his 2015 book In Defense of the Liberal Arts, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria notes “(w)hatever job you take, the specific subjects you studied in college will probably prove somewhat irrelevant . . . . What remains constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems. Given how quickly industries and professions are evolving these days, you will need to apply these skills to new challenges all the time. Learning and relearning, tooling and retooling are at the heart of the modern economy.”

It is the responsibility of the universities throughout the Upper Midwest, in partnership with private industry leaders, to evolve into institutions that teach students who develop as whole persons to think intentionally on a large, interdisciplinary scale and learn to solve real, immediate problems. If we are able to do that, we will create a generation of skillful innovators who make learning and relearning a part of their daily lives to the benefit of us all.

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Posted:February 29, 2016


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