What is the role of youth and student involvement in the future of academia and industry? And what more can be done to uplift the voices of young engineers? On this episode of Innovation in the Classroom, our host Dora Smith joins Maria Laura Polo and Felipe Gomez Gallo, engineering students spearheading a student-engagement organization called SPEED.
SPEED, or the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development, aims to integrate and uplift the global youth engineering community, exposing students to new opportunities and tools to further their engineering careers. Tune in to the episode to hear Dora, Maria Laura, and Felipe discuss how SPEED empowers youth engineers, along with topics such as:
- How Maria Laura and Felipe got into engineering and their advice to engineering students
- The five pillars of SPEED: 1- education, 2- climate action, 3- inclusion, diversity, equity & access, 4- peace engineering, and 5- mental health
- How SPEED facilitated a historical moment by providing youth with the opportunity to share their voices to the UN General Assembly
- SPEED’s Voices for Change initiative
- SPEED’s involvement with the SDG4Youth Network
- A conversation on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected student engagement
- Students and mental health
- How the switch to online learning fostered innovations in classroom education
- The effect that the rise of online education platforms (Coursera, edX, LinkedIn Learning) may have on traditional education
Regarding SPEED, it’s all about facilitating and enhancing the voices of those that are often not heardFelipe Gomez Gallo, President of SPEED
It’s not just like, working in SPEED as a hobby, it’s something that will give you an opportunity and open up new pathways for you to be successful in your life with what you want to doMaria Laura Polo, future President of SPEED
Connect with Maria Laura:
Connect with Felipe:
Dora: Welcome to Innovation In The Classroom by the Siemens Empowers Education Team. I’m Dora Smith.
It’s no secret that the past couple of years have brought about major disruptions in academia. The pandemic upended the traditional learning experience and forced educators and students alike to adapt in ways that they never had before. Although there were many downsides to this, it drove innovation at an unprecedented rate and led to a renewed focus on the importance of student engagement.
My guests today, Maria Laura Polo and Felipe Gomez are both engineering students and part of a student-engagement organization called SPEED, which stands for The Student Platform for Engineering Education Development. The ultimate goal of SPEED is to encourage student involvement and engagement by integrating the youth engineering community and exposing the students to new thoughts and tools to make use of in their engineering careers.
In this episode, Maria Laura and Felipe talk to me about their own experiences as students in engineering, the importance of engagement and adaptability, and what they think industry can do to promote innovation in the classroom.
Maria Laura: Keep in mind that engineering will give you a path to serve people, if that is what you like, but it will also give you a path to do innovation, if that’s more your interest. And whatever you decide to do, when you get into engineering, the most important thing, I think, in my opinion is to not give up the other things in your life that you enjoy. Because engineering might become a passion for you- but you still need to have balance in your life. And the fact that you’re an engineer, it sounds like it will become your whole life, and in a lot of cases the job does take a lot of time. But take care of yourself and don’t give up the things that you enjoy. Go to concerts, take an art class, reading- any other things that you enjoy in life, keep doing them.
Dora: When it comes to choosing our path in life, some of us are strict planners and others prefer to wing it, taking each day as it comes. Regardless of where on this spectrum one may fall, and what vision we hold for our future, we all follow our own unique paths and no one’s journey is quite the same.
Maria Laura: When I went into engineering, I had just graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew the things that I liked. So I liked science, I liked math, I also liked the social sciences and humanities. So I was looking for something that will put all of that together. When I started reading about engineering and environmental engineering, that was the path that seemed to put all of my interests in one place, and it had a social reason, and it would be to serve people. But also using science, which is what I liked.
Felipe: For me, it was definitely a rocky road. I only knew that I was good at math, chemistry, and I decided that I wanted to be an engineer just because I was good at it *laughs*. Then when I entered the university, I started as a chemical engineer, but I didn’t like that *laughs again*. I ended up in physics, geoscience. Then I got into math, but I ended up in environmental engineering, because it was the only one that could offer me like a social aspect of engineering. We were really involved with helping people and trying to create a better world for all. So I ended up loving engineering while I was doing engineering. I didn’t envision myself as an engineer before, but I ended up loving the area, as soon as I got into it.
Dora: So what are the next steps after graduation? Where do they see themselves at the end of all of this?
Maria Laura: My dream job is I would love to be a professor at a university. Hopefully, a well paying university *laughs*. I love it because- it’s the thing that I want to do because it fits into my lifestyle, it gives me vacation, it gives me time off, it gives me my own time management. And at the same time, I get to meet new people all the time. So every semester, you’re meeting a new group of students, and you have connections with new young people, and it keeps you alive. On top of that, you have to continue learning all the time and I love learning, I love staying on my feet, you know, learning education and different ways to teach people is always a challenge. I know that that would keep me alive.
Felipe: For my side I also started thinking that I would really love to be a professor. But now recently, I have found my passion in political incidents and trying to have a better world for all through the spaces that are out there. So I have been involved with the UN spaces a lot in the recent months. And I have found that I would really enjoy to be a public servant in the international arena and the United Nations- that would be a dream job for me.
Dora: After hearing Maria Laura and Felipe describe their respective dream jobs, I couldn’t help but think of how many doors a degree in engineering opens up. The opportunities seem endless, yet it can seem like a daunting pursuit. With this in mind, I asked my guests what advice they would impart to those thinking of pursuing an engineering career.
Felipe: I would tell them to not give up in the middle of the road, because there will be times that you will be a little bit affected by all of the demands that engineering careers have. So don’t forget why you joined in the first place. And then try to find others that can guide you in this process, to find mentors that can help you to envision what you are going to be doing for the rest of your life.
Maria Laura: I guess from my part, it would be whether you’re going into engineering, or you’re not decided yet, keep in mind that engineering will give you a path to serve people, if that is what you like, but it will also give you a path to do innovation, if that’s more your interest. And whatever you decide to do when you get into engineering, the most important thing, I think, in my opinion is to not give up the other things in your life that you enjoy. Because engineering might become a passion for you. But you still need to have balance in your life. And the fact that you’re an engineer, it sounds like it will become your whole life and in a lot of cases the job does take a lot of time, but take care of yourself and don’t give up the things that-that you enjoy. Go to concerts, take an art class, reading- any other things that you enjoy in life, keep doing them.
Dora: As mentioned, both Maria Laura and Felipe are members of SPEED – a global organization for students to share ideas, knowledge, and so much more. Felipe is currently the organization’s president and longest standing member and Maria Laura will be taking over as president later this year. Together, they walked me through SPEED’s mission as a non-profit and how it aims to help engineering students.
Felipe: So the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development was born in 2006 in Rio, where student leaders from the year gathered themselves and found a group of engineering students that were really interested in education. We have evolved into a new organization where we are trying to bridge the gap between STEM students across the globe into five different pillars that we have identified as important for our future as an organization. So those five pillars are education, climate action, inclusion, diversity, equity and access, peace engineering, and mental health. Those are the five pillars that we are trying to bridge the gap between STEM, and the five arenas that I just mentioned.
Maria Laura: Yeah, so just to round up what Felipe said, we are bridging the gap between STEM and our five pillars. And the way that we are doing this is we are strengthening our network. So SPEED will function as a network between different stakeholders, student leaders, academia and industry. And in that way, we hope to facilitate a dialogue between the different stakeholders, and push forward in engineering education, including as many people around the world as we can.
Dora: A new and interesting development in SPEED has it opening its doors, not just to students, but now also to young engineering professionals. Maria Laura explained the reason for this shift.
Maria Laura: Well, I think for starters, our own personal experience, because we are at that stage where we’re already finishing our studies, and we’ll go into the workforce. SPEED is like our baby, we don’t want to let go SPEED. But essentially, it’s because once you- if you’re a young engineer, once you get into the work environment, you’re going to be just starting out, and you’re still in a learning process. And you’re still very much connected to the things that inspired you as a student and the things that you worked on as a student. So it’s like a leap into the void. That sounds a little scary. But when we start working, it is a little scary. So being able to include those young engineers in being a support network, and also being able to provide capacity building for those young engineers and getting the input from them directly, because they are joining the work environment. They’re the ones that are facing the challenges of actually working now. And that’s a great input to have to improve on education.
Dora: As SPEED is a global organization, formed of students from around the world, I asked my guests how they encourage student involvement and drive engagement.
Maria Laura: Well, that’s always a challenge. Definitely. And it’s something that we can continually have to work on and evolve. The way that we are sort of keeping people interested in SPEED is the fact that we provide a global platform for them. So even though we’re not physically engaged, most of the time, we do provide a lot of connections around the world. It’s enriching, because you still meet a lot of people and it gives you a great experience to work with an international organization that has such a broad outreach. So for students, it’s still a pretty big interest to join a group of people with the same likes as them, and that are around the world and that get them different cultural perspectives, whether that’s online or in person, we still value that cultural perspective. And then, of course, since we do some in-person events, we always encourage our members to try to go to these events, we’re always looking for funding to bring our members together, because that’s, that’s a big part of keeping people motivated.
Felipe: So regarding SPEED, it’s all about facilitating and enhancing the voice of those that are often not heard, as loud as they could. So when you offer SPEED as a community of practice, people really want to engage because they find people that also like the things that you like. So you’re an engineer, but you are not so into the hard science, but instead, education or climate action or other impactful areas that you would like to add to practice on SPEED get over that we are a huge community of like minded people trying to change the world.
Dora: And, of course, a huge part of driving student engagement is relating to students in a way that allows you to empathize with their experiences. I asked Felipe and Maria Laura what this looks like.
Felipe: It all came down to our own educational experience, and how we are- were often like, felt that we were not as heard as possible, so we can empathize with that, because we suffered through it. We went through the journey of not being heard and not really liking our educational journey. And turning those opportunities to be heard and be seen, that was the whole perspective of SPEED, when we joined some years ago.
Maria Laura: And if I can add a little bit on that empathizing with our members, particularly, since we do spend so much time online, and especially with the past two years, that we weren’t able to really meet with our peers. What we have done is,, we understand that people go through difficult things, and that students have a lot on their mind, students have pretty big loads to take care of, academic loads, and often, family things and you know, other things in life. So, if a member of, of ours, you know, we’re very open in communication. So any member of ours can say, you know what, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be really, really busy and I won’t be able to give my 100% and that’s fine. I will find other ways to cover that person’s responsibilities, we’ll take them on ourselves. Whatever we can do, to assist people or to really be flexible with the people that work with us, is really important, and that way they feel supported as well.
Dora: Another way SPEED increases engagement is by reaching out to other student organizations. Maria Laura expanded on this.
Maria Laura: So for example, about two years ago, I think, we started approaching different organizations. Among those, a very special one is Abenge Estudiantil, which is a Brazilian organization, you know, the Brazilian organization of Engineering Education and their student division. So approaching them was a really- was an important thing for us, because we didn’t have any members in Brazil. We have a few members in South America, but we didn’t have anyone in Brazil. And it’s such a huge and rich country that it was, it was very interesting to us, as you know, as an organization. And then approaching them was wonderful. They are super open, they have so many interesting perspectives. And we were able to participate in their yearly event, which is called Cobenge. When we participated, they opened up the floor for us to speak about our organization and make it known in Brazil. And in that way, we were able to get new members, and we did a whole screening process and an intake process. And we gathered a couple of members from Brazil. And it was, it was a completely different way to work with them, but it was wonderful because with South Americans, we also have that closeness even though we don’t speak the same language. There’s still those cultural similarities- it made it a lot of fun, to be honest. And so approaching them was- was really nice. And that’s the type of engagement that we look for when we approach different organizations.
Dora: One of the many interesting things SPEED does is organize a conference for its members called the Global Student Forum. This event brings together academics, government representatives, industry and non-profit organizations, and, of course, students to participate in innovation workshops and discuss existing projects and initiatives with the aim of maximizing the student voice within the engineering community. Felipe and Maria Laura spoke to me about their experience at these forums and the ways in which it shaped their academic careers.
Felipe: My first USF was in Italy, as you mentioned, and I was doing an exchange program in Sweden, so it was easy for me to get there. And I was really fascinated by the idea of joining with another youth and students from engineering in the same place to get ideas around education. So I ended up joining as a last minute decision, because I had no idea what SPEED was or the GSF what it was. But I ended up connecting with a lot of peers, that ended up being mentors that became mentees as well. So it was a fantastic opportunity for me to engage with a global audience, with global students around the globe. And those connections served well, in terms of my academic career, because those connections helped me to get to another places. So yeah, I joined there, and as soon as I finished the Italy event, I said, I want to join SPEED, I want to make a difference, from the year from 2015. And here seven years after, I’m still in SPEED.
Maria Laura: So for me, it was not only a professional, or like an academic experience, but also a personal one. Because when I went to Malaysia, that was 2017, I believe. And I was going through a really tough semester, a lot of labs, a lot of exams and reports to write. And it was just a really heavy academic load at the moment. So I was feeling really tired with engineering, which happens. I mean, I think all engineering students go through that at some point. I knew Felipe since we started university and we had become friends and he introduced me to SPEED and he said, you know what, join, just join it just work on these educational things. I think you’re gonna like it. It sounds like- like, it’s a lot of what you’re interested in, and you can travel. So that immediately clicked with me, I wanted to travel a lot. So I joined and the experience going there was life changing for me because I found a different area of engineering. It’s not just the practice, it’s not just designing. But the educational aspect really appealed to me and I loved being a facilitator for teams and guiding things guiding those teams through their development process of their projects. That was it for me, I fell in love and ever since then I just became really involved with the organization and well so evolved that I’m now President Elect.
Dora: Of course, not everyone can afford to travel to Italy or Malaysia, particularly when you have tuition, rent, and an array of other student expenses to worry about. And this is where the importance of student financial support comes into play.
Maria Laura: We say money doesn’t buy happiness, I mean, sure, but it really helps. Because when you’re going through financial hardship, it’s not easy for you to look at other opportunities. You look for work and whatever comes across, you’re going to take it, whatever type of work that is, you’re going to dedicate your 40 hours, 48 hours, 60 hours a week to working, because you know that you need to do it. And you’re not going to think about, I’m going to travel to this conference, because you don’t have the means to, you’re not going to have this enriching opportunity to join your peers, you’re not even going to consider it because you don’t have the financial means to do it. If an organization like SPEED supports you, and we are able to give you financial aid in joining those types of events, then it will just be a lot easier, you won’t have to consider you know, it will become a possibility for you. And if it’s a possibility, then you’re going to want to do it. And you will see that it opens up the floor to so many new opportunities as well. Because in those types of events that we go to, and the activities that we organize, not only do we do a lot of capacity building, and we teach new skills to the participants of our activities, but also we are able to make connections between our members or the students that participate with us and people that are able to give them a new job opportunity or an internship or something to advance in their professional life. And that is, I think that’s a great value for someone you know, thinking about their future. It’s not just like, working in SPEED as a hobby, it’s something that will give you an opportunity and open up new pathways for you to be successful in your life with what you want to do.
Dora: So SPEED’s mission is to be an ally to students. Its success, therefore, is rooted in the success of its members. I asked Felipe to expand on what it means to be a student-ally organization and what parameters they consider when gauging success.
Felipe: As I mentioned also, before, for the past two years of my presidency, I have been able to engage with youth spheres in the UN, because we wanted to envision how can we connect SPEED students across the globe with those spheres of political influence. So what we have done in the past months, is that we connected with other youth organizations and youth associations in order for us to create more opportunities for our global members. So it is very important for us to connect with other youth to create some meaningful connections and create projects that can go on beside beyond what our activities were initially. And because of that, we were able to connect with the UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program, children and youth major group, and we dealt with that connection, we ended up in Stockholm +50, which I’m sure we are going to be talking a bit more later on. But yeah, it’s, it’s all about connecting with other like-minded people to create meaningful engagement in those spaces.
Dora: As I’m sure you’ve already deduced, SPEED has a range of initiatives aimed at student engagement and success. One of its most recent is Voices for Change.
Maria Laura: So Voices for Change is our newest initiative. And it’s a webinar, we’re working on a series of, a one week event where it’s going to be completely all online. And essentially just a webinar event where we will have different types of speakers. It’s versatile in the sense that we can have industry partners as speakers and also people from academia as speakers, but mainly what we want is the speakers to be young people, young engineers, students, entrepreneurs.
So the leading role in the scenario in the activity not just as receivers, but also just giving of what they know of what they experience and giving to others like them to young people. In the same way, since it is an online event, and it’s rather short, it’s more versatile in the sense that people don’t have to worry about, for example, participating in a long challenge where they have to consider time differences with other group members and they have to dedicate so many hours of their time to work and fulfill a challenge, and submit whatever it is that we’re asking for, which is a fun activity in itself. But when you’re in the middle of the semester, or you have exams coming up, you just won’t spend the time to do it. So if you can have the opportunity to just join the sessions that interest you, there’s this speaker that I would like to talk to, or I can give a 30 minute talk about my project and it’s going to reach a global audience, then it’s, it’s easier for you as a student and a young engineer to participate.
Dora: As you’ve already heard, Felipe attended, and spoke at, the Stockholm +50 – an international meeting, held by the UN General Assembly, with a particular focus on climate change and environmental action. He spoke to me about his experience and what it meant to him.
Felipe: To give a little bit of context, I joined the Stockholm +50 Youth Task Force as a representative of SPEED. And we gathered ourselves with 57 youth across the globe, in order to create meaningful youth engagement in the Stockholm +50 process. During these past seven months, what we did was our global policy paper, creating demands for youth in the environmental forum, and multilateral agreements, environmental agreements, we created our handbook on meaningful youth engagement, we created consultations across across the globe, to get the voices of youth across the globe, present in the demands that we were asking from the member states and the UN spheres. And all of these processes ended up in me going to the General Assembly in March, which was an amazing opportunity. I never imagined I would be doing something like this when I started as an engineer. And I will say, well, to address the Member States and the President of the UN General Assembly, in regards of advancing the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the decade of action. And it was a really meaningful moment. Because in that day, it was the first time that more than five youth addressed the General Assembly. And it was really a historic moment for the youth movement. And I was really glad to be part of it.
Dora: A historic moment indeed. I asked Felipe to further elaborate on the significance of more than five youth addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time.
Felipe: It is really significant, because often the youth are seen as a major group and a stakeholder that, yeah, their voices are not being heard as loud as they could. And I think that moment was really meaningful, because having not only one or two youth as previously, but five others in the General Assembly was really meaningful in terms of, of getting our demands out there. Because usually, those big speeches are for two minutes each. And yeah, you cannot say a lot in two minutes. So having a lot of more time to be able to, to portray our demands was really meaningful. And also, it was not only the speeches, but all the meaningful high-level meetings that we got during that time. We were able to meet with the president of General Assembly, we were able to meet the UN Secretary General envoy on youth, we were able to meet the assistant secretary general of UNEP and many other high level people, and that was really meaningful in terms of getting our voices heard loudly.
Dora: Curious to hear more, I asked Felipe and Maria Laura about the participation and engagement involved in being part of the Stockholm +50 youth task force.
Felipe: It really demanded a lot of time and effort, because we were doing a lot of work. As I previously mentioned, we created a global policy paper, a youth handbook on meaningful youth engagement, consultations across the globe, to get as many youth voices to be heard. We had many high level meetings towards the road to Stockholm +50. And the thing that I really, am really proud of as a SPEED member, is that we, as a team, were able to create a youth hackathon that we call the youth hackathon on the road to Stockholm +50, where we asked people from around the globe to gather in teams, and create a policy demand from any topic that they would like, and we ended up with more than 100 registrants. Yeah, it was really meaningful, because we created some policy papers from the youth, and we facilitated that.
Maria Laura: So in practical terms, the work is essentially sitting and talking to other youth representatives, and coming up with ideas for demands that you would like to include into the policy paper. From then on, you know, you explain your policy recommendation or whatever you would like to input, and the whole group will come together and comment and edit and it becomes a, it became an open document in which Felipe participated directly, and it was open to anyone who wanted to include their input. That in itself was was very meaningful, because you were able to put your, wherever you were in the world, you were able to pitch in your particular demand, whatever you think you your community might need, into a global scenario, where the decision making is happening, you know, the international policies are being created there and the agreements are being negotiated in this type of scenario. So knowing that your input will be taken into account, that’s super important. And now particularly for the activity that we developed- the hackathon. We really wanted to do it because not everybody has the opportunity to participate in a policy paper. It was mainly the Youth Task Force, I believe that led the whole process of the youth policy paper. And so we wanted to open up the opportunity for other students to get acquainted with this type of document. It’s not something that we see as students or that we become to know or learn as students, and it requires a certain structure and a specific type of language, and it has a very specific goal, which is to convince the decision makers, that whatever it is you’re asking for, is important and needs to be solved. So we wanted to open up that opportunity for other students to learn and to just get involved. And if they liked the activity, if they liked creating a policy paper, then they know that they can participate in larger activities or larger projects, such as the global youth policy paper in which Felipe was.
Dora: So it’s clear that initiatives like Stockholm +50 and organizations like SPEED engage students in a hands-on, meaningful way. Another example of this is the SDG4Youth network, an organization that aims to include youth education activists in the shaping of education policies. Felipe broke down the organization’s focus and the ways in which SPEED has become involved in it.
Felipe: So the SDG4Youth Network, we are also there as SPEED. And I’m joined there as a representative for the network. It was created by UNESCO to advance the SDG4 goal, which was quality education, and achieving quality education for all. So we joined that space in December, it was born in December, we joined the space, and what we are now doing is working with other youth across the globe as well to impact on the different education forums that are out there. So in the coming months, we are going to be working towards the Transforming Education summit that will be held in September. And we are also identifying other spaces that we can have an impact as youth voices. But it’s all about quality education and how we are delivering the voices of engineers and also STEM people to this international forums.
Dora: Moving away from engaging students through student organizations, I wanted to hear my guests’ take on student engagement throughout the beginning stages of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. How this was driven and the ways the student community was affected.
Felipe: Well the pandemic hit in a transition point when I was a graduate teaching assistant- I was in person graduate teaching assistant and then I had to move towards an online graduate teaching assistant. I was able to witness how educational students shifted in this period. And from my experience, and what I saw, was a really tough time for people to adapt quickly to the different challenges that the pandemic brought. So, for instance, my first demos as a grad TA was really lively, I was really enjoying participating with people in-person and sharing our ideas together. But when the shift came, it was really difficult to personally engage with students, and for them to feel that you are there for them. Because there is just a computer and you cannot meaningfully engage between each other. I know that the students it was really difficult for them to really engage with their professors as TAs and the people behind the screen, just because they didn’t feel comfortable. And it was also them and it was really difficult for them to adapt. I think it came with a lot of benefits as well, to have your educational processes at your own pace, that you were able to engage with others in a different arena. And yeah, it was easier for people to communicate and share global scenarios that often you wouldn’t get as a university student. So we were able to bring speakers from other universities and other experiences that were really nice. But there were challenges that needed to be addressed. And I hope that now that we achieved into in-person, communities, again, that those challenges can be addressed.
Maria Laura: one thing is when you’re when you’re in a classroom, and you want to ask a question, or you want to make a comment in the class, you’re surrounded by people, and you’re not the only face that’s being seen. But when you’re on a zoom call, as soon as you open up your microphone, your face is blown up on the screen. And so you’re sort of put on the spotlight, even more than when you’re in person, or at least it feels that way. And in many ways, that makes it really uncomfortable. Additionally, you’re not in the usual environment, academic environment- you might be in your room, you might be in a living room, you can have people walking around you. So all of those things make it hard for a student to feel comfortable participating in a class, or just opening up their camera to be seen, it, it’s really it’s a different challenge. And it can become pretty stressful. The other thing that I saw, that I thought was super relevant was that being online, as much as it had its benefits, because you’re able to be in the comfort of your home, you don’t have to commute anywhere, it does take a toll on your mental health. Because we were online because we were required to be, we had to be inside our homes, we weren’t able to go out and socialize, meet our friends. And so for students that had already had the in-person experience, it became just tiring to be in front of a screen for such long periods of time. And it became just a sort of like an extra load of the things that you have to deal with. You’re dealing with the stress of a global pandemic, but then you also have to study for your exams, while you feel that the world around you is changing completely. And you’re still doing these things that might not feel as meaningful because everything around you is changing. That creates a lot of stress for someone and it affected a lot of students and their mental health, and the way that they were able to perform in their studies. That’s something that I believe, has been started to be addressed by academic institutions and other interested parties. But it’s not- we’re going back to normal, so it’s not going to be the priority anymore. Students mental health is not really the priority. It’s seen more as well, you know, if you can perform, then you’re fine. But, what is that person going through? And I think that’s probably the biggest impact of having to gone online.
Dora: Now I’m sure we all were affected by lockdown in some way or another. For Maria Laura, this manifested as anxiety that took shape upon returning back to ‘regular’ life and having to physically face her peers, something she hadn’t done in a while.
Maria Laura: You really have to start thinking about where the anxiety is coming from. So for me, if your anxious feelings are coming from the fact that you’re going to be in a big crowd, and you don’t know if you might get COVID, and you don’t want to get COVID, then the solution would be, make sure to wear a mask. Even if nobody’s wearing a mask, you can wear your own mask. And it’s fine. And be confident in that, because it feels strange. For example, when we went to Sweden, nobody in Sweden wears a mask, nobody. But if me, as you know, a person that has to come back to our family is not comfortable with going into the subway a closed space with many people that I don’t know, then I’m going to wear a mask, even though it feels a little strange. And it gives you a sense of security. So don’t be afraid to just go a little bit out of the norm, if that’s what makes you feel comfortable. If the anxiety is coming from the fact that you don’t feel adequate, anymore, to be in a group of peers, my suggestion would be try to find someone to support you. Having a support buddy is so important. When we went to the conference in Madrid. It was the most important thing for me, at least, was knowing that I had Felipe, Laura, and I, which were people that I knew and that I trusted, and that were supporting me. So in times when I was feeling uncomfortable, they were there for me. That changes the whole experience, because you don’t have to go through those anxious feelings alone. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have them. But you know that you’re going to have someone next to you that understands. And that really makes a difference.
Dora: Another thing so many of us experienced during the pandemic was the loss of loved ones. As someone who experienced personal loss during the pandemic, I asked Felipe what tools he found most helpful in managing during this difficult time.
Felipe: The first advice that I have for people is seeking professional help. It’s a no-brainer, you should seek professional help whenever you can. Because speaking your issues with a professional, it helps you a lot in dealing with them. Also, try to have other peers that can listen to you and where you can discuss openly when you are going through. You can imagine how many conversation I had with Maria Laura about anxiety, depression, personal losses, and everything that we go through with these difficult times. So having support people around you, it’s really beneficial for your mental health. What other things I also spend a lot of time investing in myself, watching movies, going for a walk, yoga, meditation, and many other avenues for trying to disconnect from this, from the reality of just spending time with yourself? It really helps you a lot in your mental health, keeping up with it.
Dora: So the pandemic brought about new obstacles and challenges when it came to learning and academia. A big one for educators was having to transition from in-person learning to doing everything online. In the blink of an eye, the need for innovative teaching was imminent and the adaptation process certainly wasn’t seamless. I asked Felipe and Maria Laura about what new types of innovative teaching they experienced when the switch to online learning was made.
Maria Laura: All of the innovations that we saw were mainly digital ones. And so we saw a spike in the new applications and new programs that you could use as a student to better participate and as a professor to better engage your students. We saw the Google Suite being used everywhere, they started giving out clear instructions for how you could use it integrated into your classroom. And one of the applications that, that really caught my attention was Jamboard. And because it lets you, as a professor lead a discussion, it lets your students participate without necessarily having to speak or be with the camera on. And it’s very graphic, so it’s visually appealing. The other one that we used was Myro, which is super interesting, because it gives you sort of a feeling of an infinite space, where you can zoom in and put your, your little post-it note or your drawing or whatever you want, where you feel most comfortable. It’s very interactive, super interactive, you can see other people participating, whether they have their official name or not, because that depends on the policy, whatever the policy is at your institution. But you can see other people participating, engaging, and then you feel probably more comfortable doing it yourself. Other innovations that I saw were time management applications and things like that. So if you’re doing a session online, as a professor, you might lose track of time. And you have these new time management tools that you can use. Or as a student, if you’re working on a project, and you know that you’re not going to be joining your peers and say, we’re going to have a three hour session in the library. Instead, you’re going to be working all independently, but the way that you can follow up with those is with tools like Trello. And I learned that it is so useful to just keep track of the things that all your teammates are doing. And if something can’t be done on time, then someone else will pick it up. And it just, it helps be more collaborative. So all these collaborative working tools, made digital, became really interesting to me.
Another really big innovation that I saw was, during the first year of the pandemic, Felipe and I participated in an in an event called a Thriving Online by Petrus. That was a pretty amazing experience because I was able to learn from different students what what strategies were going on in their universities, and as a team, we also came up with new innovations that could be implemented not only in the classroom, but within the campus. And I learned that there are organizations that create digital campuses basically. Especially when you’re studying at a distance, it allows to have all the information in one place and if it gives you a sense of community, some things might not be as included sort such as like the social aspect or the socialization aspect into that digital campus, but it can be. So you can have spaces, or, you know, joining other students that are online and watching a movie, for example. And I thought that was incredible, especially for first year students that are just going into university, and they don’t really know anyone. Having a digital community helps you connect with your peers and it helps you not feel so alone. So I think that that was probably one of the biggest things that I learned about.
Felipe: I want to take it back to mental health, again, because the biggest innovation in the classroom that I saw was that students were not recipients of education no longer- like now we can have students being worlds and the classroom becomes a community of practice where each of of the stakeholders, the professor, the TAs, and the students can help each other in these tumultuous times, difficult times. So what I saw really innovative in during my time as a TA was how we connected with the Psychology Department in our university, and how to identify triggers, issues, or comments from the students in order to keep improving the classroom experience for them. So it was fantastic to be able to connect engineering with mental health. And those conversations that were fostered were really powerful and tools to identify how can we better implement activities for students to be more much more engaged in the educational process.
Dora: As you just heard, classroom innovation is not only important, it’s integral to increasing the potential and success of students. A lot of the time, however, academia tends to lag behind industry when it comes to innovation, leaving curriculum unchanged and out of date. I asked my guests to share their perspectives on this.
Maria Laura: It has multiple avenues, that answer. But I’m just going to start by saying that perhaps the communication between industry and academic institutions is not as fluid or as common as comfortable as it should be. And I think that’s, that’s where it all falls, you know, effective communication. Industry moves at a very fast pace. And the set of skills that you need to become part of an industry are constantly changing. I mean, of course, there’s a set of core skills which you learn in university, but things to just be successful in the actual work environment, are not directly thought in the curriculum. And they are constantly changing, because new technologies appear, and new ways of working come up. So for academic institutions, to keep up with that evolving pace of industry is difficult. Because academia sort of centers on being able to perfect what they are already teaching students. So they have these core, and these core skills that need to be taught, and they want to do it in the best way possible, so semester after semester, they’re just trying to improve on those things, and perfect those things. But including new things in an academic curriculum is extremely difficult. First of all, it involves a direct input from industry, because they’re the ones that can tell academic institutions what is really needed at the moment and what’s going to be needed in the next five years, for example. And then it becomes an issue of the administration part of the universities to include that into the curriculum. And that takes so many meetings, so much time, editing documents, and bureaucratic barriers that might arise in reteaching professors, for example, the new technologies and the new skills that they need to teach. And all of those different layers just make it a bit difficult. And if there’s no direct communication, or you know, a dialogue between both parts, it just creates the gap that we see as and we experience as students, where we feel that we learn certain things in university and when we get into our first job, we don’t know anything.
Dora: So are there ways in which industry can involve itself more in academia to help keep curriculum up to date?
Felipe: Let me share my experience as a student representative of my university because during my time, at that position, I was really involved in the redesigning of the curricula of my department. And what I have witnessed is that these curricular reforms are really managed by the academicians and there’s other stakeholders are thought like afterwards, like, oh, we should include the students in this process, why don’t we have one meeting with them? And let’s hear what they are expecting. And that’s it, that’s all the input that they get from the students. That also happens with industry. That’s another afterthought. Oh, we need to think what are they going to be expected in the current work scenario? And they only gather themselves for one meeting with the industry. They gather the inputs, and they take those conversations towards the academician meetings. What ends up happening is like, people are going to be battling for their own interest. For example, the professor in hydraulics is going to fight for the hydraulics course to stay in the curricular reform, but they don’t expect for an ethics course, or a writing course, or any other many meaningful skills that we expect from our graduates, to be heard in those conversations. So it is rather important that these measures comes through for academicians that will you need to open up those spaces to the different stakeholders in the educational process. Because we, all of the rest of the stakeholders have many great ideas on how to have better graduates in the current market and the future market because that’s another conversation. Are we preparing the students today for the future challenges? I’m not sure about it. And I think they could benefit a lot from industry and youth and many other stakeholders in these conversations.
Dora: To end our conversation, I wanted to know my guests’ perspective on other non-traditional means of learning like Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and edX. With more and more people making use of these platforms, will we see a shift away from more traditional classroom learning?
Maria Laura: I don’t think it’s going to necessarily pull away students from the traditional experience of university just because having that experience to be with peers, especially if we are going back into in-person participation, that is not supplemented by online courses, or online learning opportunities. They’re great, they’re wonderful, and they give people a chance to learn at their own pace. And it’s very useful for people that can’t access a university education, per se. If those courses are able to, you know, reach those marginalized communities that can’t access university, that is a huge value and it gives those people a chance to have major skill sets, which they can then use to improve their own living and their own professions. Now, as far as universities, I think, the social part is so important that it’s still going to continue to be there. But universities need to step up and modernize what they’re doing, because students need it. And we see the different requirements that we have now, sure, going to university is fun and everything. But if you’re going to go to a university, and you’re going to come out thinking that the skill sets that you have are not the best for the work that you want to do, then you’re going to start relying on other tools that are out there. So I think as long as universities are able to keep evolving in supplying those needs, the traditional model will still be there.
Felipe: I’m a little bit not as optimistic as Maria Laura. And as I see this current situation, the current trends in universities, if they don’t keep up with the current trends of education, like the offer the Coursera, edX and many other platforms, they are going to be left out of the conversation just because students are going to be seeking for education in places that are modern, and they are interested in the educational processes. And I think universities are being left behind by this by these platforms. You can see it in the registration rates, admission rates and onboarding rates for university are going down by the year. So I think people are seeking for education in other non-traditional spaces. And I think universities need truly to think about how to really modernize their processes.
Maria Laura: I also think it’s a cultural issue as well, because perhaps in South America, which is where I did most of my studies, and it’s definitely still ingrained into the mind of young people that university is the way to go. You know, it’s, it’s the path, the right and many times the only path to become successful in your country. But living in the United States now, I have seen that so many young people don’t go to university. It’s mostly well, so many people that are from the United States, it’s mostly maybe, you know, people from other cultural backgrounds that end up going into University for a formal education. So I think the cultural aspect of that is also important. But young people do see that there are other opportunities outside of going into university. So from what you were mentioning, Felipe, I think university definitely, and formal academic institutions in general, need to complement what they are doing with the other tools because things like Coursera- they have new courses coming up to supply the needs of industry and to supply the needs of the evolving, the evolving society. So if universities are able to incorporate that into their programs, I think that might be a step forward.
Dora: So whether it’s through student organizations, adaptive learning, or industry intervention, student engagement, involvement, and amplification is vital to the success, and growth, of academia. With the existence of organizations like SPEED, and student advocates like Maria Laura and Felipe, this is success that can surely be achieved.
Stay tuned to Innovation In The Classroom wherever you do podcasts. I’m Dora Smith. Thanks so much for listening!