Making change in the world while earning a credit

Powdered cricket brownies, anyone? As part of the preliminary pitch for their semester-long assignment in the Ideas Congress (ICON) course, a team of Guelph undergraduates recently handed out home-baked goodies — complete with insect ingredients — to classmates.

To judge by appreciative comments around the classroom that evening, the brownies helped to sweeten up the crowd. And the arguments by members of The Insect Effect team for eating bugs — cheap, high in protein and more environmentally friendly than raising livestock — resonated with classmates.

But being fed free treats didn’t deter anyone from peppering the team with pointed questions about their idea for promoting entomophagy.

Encouraging that kind of animated give-and-take is partly what integrative biology professor Shoshanah Jacobs and Prof. Dan Gillis, School of Computer Science, had in mind when they got together to design the ICON course.

They also aim to help under-graduates cultivate three main skills that Jacobs says repeatedly rank tops in employer surveys: problem solving, knowledge transfer and translation, and teamwork.

Their solution introduced in 2015 is a self-directed course that challenges undergrads to take charge of their own learning. Participants also have to figure out how to work with counterparts from different areas across campus on a discipline-straddling problem. For the entire semester, ICON students work in teams of four or five on devising a solution to an important societal need.

“It’s a non-lecture, alternative teaching model,” says Jacobs, who sees herself and Gillis more as facilitators than as instructors. “It’s great to find ways to take students beyond their undergrad discipline.”

In 2015, student teams worked on ideas to help create net-zero energy houses. In winter 2016, groups worked on concepts for a mobile classroom lab connected to an “eco-learning” demonstration centre proposed for the Guelph Innovation District. Last fall, the theme was food security.

Students are graded individually on participation, communication and a research essay, and assessed group marks for preliminary and final project pitches.

Fourth-year geography student Brooke Ellison Wareing says the course has taught her about

teamwork, delegation and problem solving. Her group is working on an app to enable consumers to purchase low-cost restaurant leftovers to reduce food waste.

“You almost get to create the class yourself,” she says. “You decide what your goals are and how you want to achieve them.” – ANDREW VOWLES