Taking on the World’s Grand Challenges

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2015

By Cynthia Scott

It is both a minor shift and a radical rethinking of learning at the University of Minnesota. That’s how one professor describes the new Grand Challenges Curriculum (GCC), the inaugural initiative of the University’s ambitious new strategic plan, which calls for the U to become a leader in solving the “grand challenges” of a diverse and changing world.

The first five classes in the GCC will be offered this fall. “GCC is a minor shift in the sense that what universities do is offer classes, but radical in the sense of what goes into the classes,” says Julian Marshall, a professor of civil, environment, and geo-engineering who is co-teaching the course Global Venture Design—What Impact Will You Make? The class, co-taught with Fred Rose (M.S.E.E. ’83), director of Acara, an entrepreneurship program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, will guide multidisciplinary teams in designing solutions to global challenges related to environment, health, and development.

“If you’re an entering student you might be fooled into thinking the GCC is no big deal, but it is,” he says. How big of a deal? GCC is designed to become a defining strength of the University and intended to advance a culture change at the U emphasizing inspiration, engagement, action, and impact. Its classes reflect the principle that the critical challenges facing the world stretch across the boundaries of a particular discipline, and lectures focus not just on analyzing problems, but on forging solutions. Universities, Marshall says, traditionally function at the department level, where courses are determined, instructors assigned, and students admitted. But GCC courses add breadth and depth by being cross-disciplinary. “These are big problems—if they weren’t, they’d be solved by now,” Marshall says. “By offering the GCC there’s a recognition that complicated problems are not going to be solved by any one discipline.”

In addition to the GCC, the strategic plan calls for a Grand Challenges research strategy. A process is underway to identify three to five Grand Challenges that will be embraced as institutional priorities in the coming decade.

Engagement and Impact

The University of Minnesota’s strategic plan calls for the U to be in the forefront of solving the grand challenges of diverse and changing world. It aims to make the University more nimble and to encourage collaborations in areas of potential for major impact in the coming decade. That vision comprises four goals:

1 • Build exceptional research and curricula integrating grand societal challenges.

2 • Support excellence and reject complacency.

3 • Aggressively recruit, retain, and promote field-shaping researchers and teachers.

4 • Establish a culture of reciprocal engagement, leveraging our unique urban location.

A 30-member work group composed of faculty, staff, and students led by Provost Karen Hanson (B.A. ’70) forged the strategic plan over a two-year period, involving more than 200 members of the University community in the process. The Board of Regents approved it last fall. To read the plan visit strategic-planning.umn.edu.

Fall 2015 Grand Challenges Curriculum

Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It? explores the challenge of achieving global food security and sustainability. Lectures, skills workshops, and interactive panels with guest experts look at fundamental changes in the global food system, the environment, and civilization as a whole and how to identify solutions. Taught by Jason Hill (Ph.D. ’04), assistant professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, and David Tilman, Regents professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior.

Beyond Atrocity: Political Reconciliation, Collective Memories, and Justice introduces ways of thinking through the delicate relationship between reconciliatory initiatives, collective remembering, and the requirements of justice by examining several historical settings: the Holocaust; Spanish Civil War; South African Truth and Reconciliation experiment; American Indian struggles; and the Black Redress Movement. Taught by Alejandro Baer, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Catherine Guisan (Ph.D. ’00), visiting assistant professor of political science.

The Fracking Boom: Promises and Challenges of the Hydrocarbon Renaissance studies the energy revolution ignited by recent technological changes, primarily hydro-fracturing, or fracking. Includes examinations of economic, political, geological, environmental, and social aspects of fracking in major areas, with particular attention to North Dakota’s Bakken Shale boom and Minnesota’s frac sand and related industries. Taught by Maximiliano Bezada Vierma, assistant professor of earth sciences, and Bruce Braun, professor of geography, environment, and society.

Seeking Solutions to Global Health Issues examines the fundamental challenges to addressing complex global health problems in the world’s poorest countries. An emphasis on ethical and cultural sensitivity will help students develop the understanding and skills necessary to begin forging solutions. Taught by Cheryl Robertson (M.P.H. ’88, Ph.D. ’00), associate professor of nursing, and Mac Farnham (M.S. ’02, D.V.M. ’06), assistant professor veterinary medicine.

Global Venture Design—What Impact Will You Make? will guide multidisciplinary teams to design effective and financially viable business solutions to challenges in India related to the environment, health, and development. Taught by Julian Marshall, associate professor of civil, environmental, and geo-engineering, and Fred Rose (M.S.E.E. ’83), director of Acara at the Institute on the Environment.


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