The Improve Life Challenge Was Dino-mite

The 2019 Improve Life Challenge (ILC) ended Friday evening after an intense day of collaboration between forty students and nine community partners. Even now, after having had some time to relax and reflect, I find myself still energized by the day.

For those who are curious, the ILC is an interdisciplinary event that challenges students from all levels of undergraduate and graduate training to develop solutions to community-based problems. Typically these challenges span broad social issues, such as food security, food waste, environmental sustainability, climate change, or health. In short, it is an extra-curricular interdisciplinary and community-engaged experiential learning opportunity for students. Of course, given the diversity of participants, we don’t assume that they will just be interdisciplinary. Instead, we use the event to provide skills and tools on how to be interdisciplinary.

As mentioned in a previous post, this year’s event was modified in several ways; the biggest of which was the change from a full weekend to a single day. This was the idea of MP Lloyd Longfield, who wanted to bring together students with community partners to focus specifically on challenges related to the agricultural sector and sustainability, and how interdisciplinary teams might develop solutions to make Guelph a circular food economy. Initially, I had my reservations about how a weekend might be condensed into a day, especially given the logistical problems that it presented, but the team behind everything that happened was beyond remarkable and I can’t thank them enough1.

The day itself began shortly before 8 am, when community partners, students, and various domain experts began to filter into the Arboretum Centre. After registering, grabbing coffee and some snacks, students and community leaders took their assigned seats to begin the day. After a territorial acknowledgement by Jeanna Rex (Education Coordinator for the Arrell Food Institute), and some words from Rene Van Acker (Dean of the Ontario Agricultural College), MP Lloyd Longfield and the Honourable Senator Rob Black officially opened the event with a few words and a statement from the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

And then we got down to business. To get everyone energized and ready to tackle the day, Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs (Department of Integrative Biology) and I led the group through a few activities, including a simple but hilarious counting exercise that we borrowed from the world of improv. It never fails to confuse people – because it seems a little silly and out of place – but very quickly everyone is laughing and recognizing how important it is to listen to the person they’ve partnered with. Given the diversity of the teams, listening and laughing is hugely important to a successful day.

The day progressed with teams working to understand their community partner’s problem. Led by Shoshanah Jacobs and Erin Doherty (Program Manager of the John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise, a.k.a. CBaSE), team facilitators helped the teams work through a series of activities and tools until they arrived at a challenge statement. At this point, they’d literally frame their challenge while one team member ran to the front of the room to ring a cowbell to celebrate the milestone. Each cowbell was received with applause and cheers from the entire room.

With a challenge statement in hand, teams began the work of developing ideas for potential solutions. The goal was to develop as many as possible, and then group them based on whatever natural groupings seemed to form. Before lunch, nine teams had created more than 400 ideas spanning 67 themes. From these, the teams evaluated the potential impact of, and resources needed to implement each idea. Keeping in mind the needs of the community partners, one idea per team was selected as the best for further development. Of course, facilitators made sure to challenge teams to consider the best ideas in case there were unidentified barriers that might prevent success. And all this was finished by the time lunch was done.

After lunch, the teams focused on developing their prototypes; iterating through various versions based on feedback from facilitators and domain experts who made up the Genius Bar. The experts on the Genius Bar were there to provide teams with advice based on their expertise and experience in the agricultural, innovation, and sustainability spaces so that each solution could be as well thought out and developed as possible.

Before long, it was time for the pitches. Since teams had three minutes to present their prototypes, followed by three minutes of questions from nine judges (including MP Longfield, Senator Black, industry leaders, and University of Guelph Deans), we expected a few nerves. But we were prepared for this. To help offset nerves and because we don’t take ourselves too seriously, I donned a dinosaur onesie to kick off the pitches. The idea was that, despite whatever nerves the teams might have been feeling, no one could look as ridiculous as me. For the record, I think I look rather good in my #ScienceOnesie.

After the last pitch, our judges were asked to leave the room to deliberate. During that time, and before the bar was opened and dinner was served, we asked all of the participants to form a large circle around the room. Given the intensity of the day, we felt it necessary to have everyone reflect on what had happened. The goal wasn’t for everyone to necessarily speak, but to provide a space for anyone to share what they had learned or gained from the day if they felt inclined to share it.

Every comment was resoundingly positive, with many students in disbelief about what they were able to accomplish in such a short time. Others were impressed at their ability to work on a team so successfully even though each team included students from multiple different disciplines, and in many cases, the students had only met that day. Several others expressed gratitude that they were able to work with such a great community partner, and that they felt empowered to be part of the solution. And more than one community partner spoke about how impressed and amazed they were that the students were able to work together so well, in such a short period of time, and come up with solutions that they felt they could take and continue developing.

For me, these comments, at least from an educational viewpoint, were worth so much more than the projects that were pitched. It honestly never ceases to amaze me what students are able to accomplish when they are provided the opportunity to do so. And it never ceases to amaze me how diverse teams can come up with such incredible results in such a short period of time.

Of course, this only makes me believe more strongly that more of the undergraduate and graduate training needs to look more like this. And I don’t just mean that it needs to be more interdisciplinary (which it does), but that we need to provide curricular opportunities for students to learn how to be interdisciplinary with specific training in foundational skills such as critical thinking, adaptability, an openness to new ideas, communication, knowledge mobilization, and more. I can’t even begin to imagine what university would look like if this became the norm.

Congratulations once again to the teams who were awarded prizes. But most importantly, congratulations to everyone who participated. I am so proud of what you were able to accomplish. And I can’t wait until next year to do this all again.

1Huge thanks to Jeanna Rex, Mairin Scannell (Program Coordinator of CBaSE), and Jasmine Dament (CBaSE Intern) for organizing every detail of the ILC. Additionally, huge thanks to my partners in crime, Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs, Dr. Evan Fraser (Director, Arrell Food Institute), and Erin Doherty for spending so much of their time helping to develop the agenda and curriculum for the day. This event was what it was because of you. Also, thanks to Dana McCauley for capturing the top photo of me in all my dino-glory.

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