UI to embark on “Grand Challenge”

By Vivienne Henning

Students who prefer non-traditional classrooms may have found an outlet in new courses offered by the University.

The “Grand Challenge Experience,” or GCE, courses are the product of a group of faculty and staff members, who chose topics based on what they felt reflected what was current and important for students to learn about. The courses are separated into three pathways: Sustainability; Energy and the Environment; Inequality and Cultural Understanding; and Health and Wellness.

“Our education system tends to facilitate a mind set of getting good grades as the goal,” said Dr. Laura DeThorne, speech and hearing sciences professor. “And so one of the things I hope that comes from these courses is a reorientation on learning for learning’s sake and how to apply (that knowledge) to real world issues.”

The courses would allow students to learn from interactive experience opportunities, as well as enable students to partake in classes that would help them pursue a specific topic of interest, while receiving general education credit.

While there are currently six GCE courses debuting this semester, the program will be expanded for the spring semester as 25 new courses will be offered to students interested in the interactive learning experience.

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“These general education courses are focused on topics of interest and importance, built along with an experiential model of education. As well as that, these courses in a way, give back and help the community with the awareness that they raise,” said Terri Weissman, associate professor in art history. “These Grand Challenge Experience courses are a more hands-on, more personal experience with the coursework.”

One goal for the courses is that its experimental aspect would enable students to consider situations from different points of view that they might not be able to consider and conceptualize without the knowledge and experience from others.

Matt Hill, junior in LAS, said he thinks the topics were selected for the courses represent what millennials feel are most important to address.

“It’s cool that they’re incorporating these specific topics into undergraduate education because people always say we’re millennials, we’re the future,” he said. “It’s a really innovative and effective way to solve whatever challenges arise in these topics.”

One of the topics addressed through the GCE program is autism. DeThorne is currently teaching “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Life Services: What’s Autism Got to Do With It?” as part of the Health and Wellness pathway.

“We’re also exploring what first-person perspectives are; directly asking individuals with autism what it’s like to be autistic, what they would like from their communities, and where they feel like research needs to go,” she said, “People are very proud to be autistic and wouldn’t want to change that about themselves, and I think that’s a part of the story that doesn’t get told a lot.”

That’s why, DeThorne said, she is focused on taking a hands-on approach to learning, taking her students on field trips to directly speak with autistic individuals and expanding learning beyond the confines of a classroom.

“We all tend to get entrenched in particular perspectives or ideologies, be it disciplinary, be it political, and I think we need to actively engage in the complexity of real world issues. And that involves considering multiple perspectives,” she said. “So these courses are also intended to bring interdisciplinary perspective from multiple perspectives.”

Weissman, who teaches “Documenting Inequality” within the Inequality and Cultural Understanding pathway of GCE, believes that talking to others is where learning really occurs, she said.

“Empathy develops in the classroom about where people are coming from,” Weissman said, explaining her collaborative, discussion-based teaching style, “Not everyone is from the same place, and the students gain a larger understanding and start to understand that inequality affects them and has a very real impact on their own lives.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Grand Challenge Courses will be offered by the College of LAS. The article should have stated that the courses will be offered by the University, not one particular college. The Daily Illini regrets the error.