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Samah Pirzada: Grand Challenges research a model for real-world teaching

Victoria Chang/Daily Bruin senior staff

By Samah Pirzada

Nov. 19, 2014 12:00 am

A two-unit companion course to the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, created by members of the Grand Challenges team working toward reaching 100 percent sustainability in Los Angeles by 2050, is paving the way for a new form of education that UCLA should consider implementing.

A year has passed since UCLA launched the Grand Challenges initiative to achieve self-sufficiency in water and energy use in the L.A. region by 2050. UCLA is currently working on coordinating research between interdisciplinary groups of professors for a plan to be released in 2019, details of which will be announced next week. The Grand Challenges program partners UCLA with communities and organizations throughout Los Angeles to create and implement new technologies and strategies to address the effects of climate change and urbanization.

Given that UCLA students are some of the best and the brightest, it was only fitting that they be involved in this giant step for Los Angeles. The Grand Challenges Undergraduate Research Scholars Program was created, along with a support course, to get undergraduate students involved with the Grand Challenges. The course aims to guide students to practically apply the knowledge they learn in the class to the real world, giving them the opportunity to do hands-on research, create and implement their own real-world projects and learn how to write a resume.

This kind of applicatory, real-world teaching should be implemented by more professors at UCLA. As of right now, many classes at UCLA stop short at focusing on the theory behind real-world problems, but students should also be focusing on how our disciplines affect our community and what we can do to make an impact. More courses at UCLA should be structured to teach students how to conduct themselves beyond this school and in the real world. This is the first quarter the Grand Challenges Undergraduate Research Scholars Program is being offered, and its companion course provides a model for a more interactive course that could prepare students to apply their knowledge to their communities.

If a similarly structured program were available in every department to help students apply theoretical knowledge to the real world, they would gain exponentially more than they would from a traditional form of instruction, where a student is trained to analyze text and regurgitate information but not necessarily taught how this information can apply to their lives after graduation. Many students blindly tackle the world of jobs, internships and professional research after graduation, learning as they complete the work. If more courses were structured like the companion course, students could instead feel properly prepared and supported for the workforce by the university.

In the Grand Challenges Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, mainly second-year and third-year students are placed in a research setting and paired with a specific professor to conduct research relating to sustainability. The student can either assist the professor with the professor’s research, or the student can create a proposal for an original research idea. Because most students taking the course this quarter were relatively inexperienced in a lab setting, the companion course supports students with this research.

Rachel Kennison, the assistant director of the Undergraduate Research Center-Sciences and teacher of the year-long companion course, structured the class to equip students with practical skills necessary to assist professors with research as well as conduct their own research and execute an action plan with an interdisciplinary group. Students will look into different types of careers relating to environmental sustainability, as well as skills like writing a resume and tailoring a cover letter. Throughout the year, students are required to write a research paper about their individual research with a professor.

Michelle Popowitz, the assistant vice chancellor for research and executive director of UCLA Grand Challenges Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, described the program as a blend of two levels of student immersion. On the first level, the curriculum is being updated with the most current research, giving students access to the most modern information. On the second level, the students are getting involved with the research the professors are conducting.

Creating a program that blends these two levels provides an opportunity for students to not only participate in the Grand Challenges, but also to offer innovative ideas on how to create a more sustainable environment.

The problem with trying to add more courses that are structured like the companion course is that it may not be financially feasible. The University of California is facing a funding shortfall from the state that has led to proposed tuition hikes of five percent for the next five years. Creating a new course in each department could be more than UCLA can afford right now, but that doesn’t mean departments can’t reflect on their current courses and consider restructuring them.

The Grand Challenges Undergraduate Research Scholars Program has provided UCLA with a model that is worth incorporating in other departments. While right now may not be the best timing fiscally, it is a model professors and department heads should keep in mind when forming a curriculum.

In addition to teaching UCLA students how to grow academically, professors could also equip students with the tools necessary to survive in the real world, all while teaching students how to be better citizens of a community.

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Samah Pirzada
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