Becoming a Problem Solver

BostonOver the Fall of 2019, I took part in the Semester in the City (SITC) program at the College for Social Innovation (CFSI). This program integrates a 400-hour internship at a nonprofit or social mission business with two classes, making experiential learning accessible and structured. CFSI is not like a traditional college in that there are no degree programs offered; instead, it partners with universities, like UNH, by offering semester long exchange-like programs.

During my time with CFSI, one of my courses, Becoming a Problem Solver (BaPS), counted towards the sustainability dual major. The objectives of BaPS include uncovering what social innovation is, social driven careers, effective communication and human centered design. The course was complimented with guest speakers, group discussions, and industry experts. The course had a large focus too on the internships that each student had; assignments throughout the semester were based on the internship host organizations. For me, I interned at Speak for the Tree Boston (SFTT), an urban forestry nonprofit whose goal is to increase the size and health of Boston’s urban forest. My assignments integrated the different lessons from the class and put the context of SFTT.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned over the semester in BaPS was working in diverse teams. This lesson was a core value of CFSI and is part of sustainability science. In sustainability science, different disciplines come together to work on developing solutions for wicked problems, or problems that are complex and cannot be solved by one discipline working independently. In the course there were 51 students representing 10 universities. Even though there were many students with similar majors in the course, each student had a different perspective based on what year they were in at their home university, the courses that they have taken, and the specialized focuses that they had. From just a simple look at the students, it was clear that there was diversity amongst the cohort.

The challenges of working in such a diverse team were quite apparent from the beginning of the course. One of the most evident challenges was motivation. Unfortunately, there was a big difference in motivation among the entire class: the two professors of the course were highly motivated, half of the students were eager to learn and gave it their all, and the other half of the students treated the course like a joke. As a student in this course who was motivated, I found it difficult working with the unmotivated students and meeting the expectations of the professors. There were times when I had to take on multiple roles in the group project, while there were times that I thought I was doing well only to get negative feedback by the professors. These challenges of motivation reminded me of transdisciplinary research, a method of sustainability science.

In transdisciplinary research, multiple stakeholders and experts of different disciplines come together. This process is not traditionally used in research because it can be lengthy in time and costly. When working in a transdisciplinary research team, each person has a perspective on problem: one scientist may see their place clearly in the research process, another researcher may not see their need as clearly, and stakeholders may have more or less interest based on their impact of the decision. In BaPS, there were different perspectives, like those examples listed previously, on the importance of the course. Some students were using the course as a capstone class, others were using it as a simple elective. Like my experience, scientists and stakeholders may have some clashes with those who they are working with. However, it is said that transdisciplinary research often yields results that are better suited for the long term and offer a fuller solution than what a single discipline can provide. This was true for my experience in BaPS. While I did learn the contents of the course, I had a fuller experience working with different people, an improved idea of self advocation and a better understanding of ideas outside of the curriculum even though I experienced challenges.

BaPS was a positive experience that has helped me improve my sustainability dual major experience. This course provided a nontraditional educational experience that not every student has had the option to do. This gives me new insights when participating and contributing to the remainder of my courses, especially my remaining sustainability capstone.