May 29, 2003

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Demystifying how the real world works

Mark Winston saw an opportunity and a need: to make post-secndary education more relevant to societal issues and societal issues more relevant to students.

By Taigita Biln
The large table in the fifth floor classroom at SFU's Harbour Centre campus may not look like anything special but it was here that a group of 19 students and their mentor-professor embarked upon a remarkable experiment in education.

Our journey would take us through the jungles of urban planning, the intricacies of endangered species legislation and the wranglings over Kyoto. Taking our places around the table that first day, we had no idea what awaited us and it is safe to say that none of us will be the same.

The undergraduate course in dialogue is the brainchild of Mark Winston, a biologist by training and SFU's resident bee expert. Motivated by a perceived level of student apathy markedly different from the political activism and social idealism of his college years, Winston saw an opportunity and a need: to make post-secondary education more relevant to societal issues and societal issues more relevant to students.

The undergraduate semester is an intensive 15-credit course concentrating on a single topic, in our case: nature, environment and society. It brings together a diverse mix of students from such departments as biology, computer science, psychology, philosophy, geography and communication.

This discipline bridging was part of the key to the success of the program. No longer constrained by the theories of our disciplines, we combined perspectives to reach new understandings and contemplate possible solutions to contemporary issues.

We have all heard the laments about higher education being removed from the greater society it is supposed to serve and how educational institutions today face the challenge of staying relevant and connected. This campus on top of the hill often seems to symbolically represent the ivory towers - lost in the clouds and somehow removed from the world that its students are being prepared for. Safely anchored to our table, we began our uncharted voyage into the world beyond the university walls.

Students are often made to feel like citizens once removed, as we are reminded time and again to “wait until you get into the real world.” Why should we? The semester in dialogue has proven that it is indeed possible to bridge the gap between higher education and the world beyond.

The rigorous class was held five days a week, with a reading load usually seen in a graduate level course. I have never been so tired at the end of the day nor so inspired. Some moments were positively electric. Others were decidedly uncomfortable, reminding us that learning is about challenging your own assumptions about the world and making room to consider other ideas. As one of our guest speakers pointed out, change comes from people learning, becoming aware and being inspired to create change. This may seem a rather banal statement, but it is a point that can be lost in a lecture hall of two hundred or more students.

The overwhelming sentiment shared by the students involved in that first semester was: this is how education should be. It raised the level of engagement to new heights and we all felt that the quality of our education was significantly increased.

The value of a liberal education has taken a beating lately as marketplace thinking increasingly exerts its influence on all spheres of society, raising the question that we addressed frequently during our discussions: what is the goal of post-secondary education? Is it merely to train workers to take their place in the global economy or is it to produce thoughtful citizens who not only care about the world around them, but also see a role for themselves in the issues that affect their lives?

The undergraduate semester demystified the workings of the real world we had heard so much about by giving us an opportunity to come face-to-face with the people holding the positions that we may some day find ourselves in. The world on paper is two-dimensional, but on the street the dimensions are multiple and issues are transformed dramatically with the addition of each new player, each new perspective. The true test of any theory is in the implementation. How do you get all of the players on board?

Perhaps most importantly, we learned to listen because what you hear is just as important as what you have to say. Dialogue aims to focus conversation in order to help illuminate the basis of differences in opinion. This understanding is crucial. The world is based on differences in opinion and change occurs as a result of divergent ideas and approaches meeting and converging.

The goal of dialogue is not to convince, persuade or reach consensus, but to try to understand what informs various perspectives in order to find practical ways of living in an increasingly complex world.

We also saw the power of the individual to affect change. During his visit to our class, Mike Harcourt brought our attention to the many motions that were passed during his tenure at City Hall that have helped to preserve Vancouver as a thriving, liveable city and a model for North American urban planning. Most were passed by a 6-5 vote. As Harcourt reminded us, “don't ever believe that one person can't make a difference.”

So is there any merit in a liberal arts education? The answer is that there is significant merit, so long as universities meet the challenge of educating students in a manner that not only draws strong connections between theory and practice, but also actively encourages students to apply this learning to the world that awaits them.

Fortunately the university recognizes the potential of such a course and is expanding the frequency and topics for the undergraduate semester in dialogue.

This is great news for students presently coming up the ranks at SFU, especially for those who thirst for more of a challenge from their education. It changed my university education from a satisfying experience into a transformative experience and as I prepare to step out and make my mark in the world, I possess a new level of confidence and determination.

From my own experience in the semester in dialogue I have learned that as students, we can expect more, we will demand more. We are first and foremost citizens and we all have the capability to affect the world around us in our unique way. By exploring our own creative capacities, we began to glimpse the possibilities each of us carries for having an impact on our world. The feeling of hope that this created was palpable.

And on that last day, as we looked around the table that had been both our vessel and our anchor, no one wanted to disembark.

Taigita Biln (above) was among the first students to participate in the new undergraduate semester in dialogue. She graduates this month with a bachelor of applied science.

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