Faculty should train students how to make their ideas tangible (opinion)


In the 1980s, a coalition of activists worked with city leaders to establish a trust fund to subsidize housing for Chicago residents living in poverty. Now imagine if the coalition of housing activists came up with this idea but never convinced city leaders to implement it. Society needs change agents who not only can develop ideas to address complex challenges but also actually make those ideas work.

Currently, most college and university faculty members train students to develop ideas but not to implement those ideas. At best, students might come up with a concept for a new vaccine education program for patients whose preferred language is not English. The students might present this idea to their professor at the end of the semester, but they’d never experience the challenges of convincing the health-care administrators, department of health and accreditation organizations to implement this service. The result is a lack of effective change agents and a society that struggles to manage social crises such as pandemics, global poverty and climate change.

Teaching Students How to Make It Happen

Faculty members traditionally train students to consider ways to deal with complex challenges in the abstract. For example, the instructor typically asks students to develop their own ideas for tackling a problem like global poverty. Throughout the semester, they evaluate the students’ developing ideas. They may ask: Do the ideas seem feasible? Are they sustainable? Do they address the causes of poverty? By receiving this feedback, students learn to come up with better ideas.

But developing ideas is just the beginning. Instructors need to train students to also get buy-in from stakeholders to make those ideas tangible. And that holds true for challenges in any domain, because complex challenges have many stakeholders.

Recall the founders of Kiva: to address global poverty, they had to not only develop their idea for crowdfunding microcredit, but they also had to get buy-in from thousands of potential leaders. Similarly, to help underresourced students with their writing skills, the founders of 826 Valencia not only developed the idea for starting writing centers in neighborhood storefronts, but they also secured support for them from funders, teachers, parents and local governments. And to stop the spread of COVID-19, organizers in Southern California not only developed the idea of using a mobile vaccination site to reach agricultural workers during their shifts, but they also convinced people in local government, nonprofits, community organizations and philanthropy to implement that idea.

To train students in implementation, instructors need to introduce students to stakeholders and teach them how to get stakeholder buy-in as they are developing their ideas. Consider again the problem of global poverty. If students want to learn to make an impact on it, a faculty member can’t accomplish that by delivering lectures. Instead, at the start of the semester, the instructor must intentionally ask students to develop and effectuate ideas to alleviate poverty. They must help students identify stakeholders with whom they can feasibly work—perhaps by partnering with local nonprofits engaged in international aid or using remote work technology to collaborate with international NGOs.

Throughout the semester, the instructor should ask students to report on their developing ideas as well as the actions that stakeholders have taken to demonstrate their buy-in, such as investing money to fund microloans. By the end of the semester, the students will have come up with new concepts to address complex societal challenges as well as gotten the stakeholder support they need for those ideas to become reality.

This may seem impossible, but it works when instructors have adequate resources. Faculty members and administrators used to think that it wasn’t feasible to engage students in rigorous scientific investigations until they mastered a domain of scientific knowledge in graduate school. But we now know that students are capable of conducting investigations and developing models based on scientific evidence as early as elementary school—provided that teachers have adequate resources to support those activities, including training, curriculum and time. With the ongoing rollout of the Next Generation Science Standards, society is embracing the importance of providing K-12 teachers with such resources, and more students than ever before are learning to conduct scientific investigations. We now need to embrace the equally important challenge of providing college teachers with the resources to teach implementation.

How It Works

In our collective 46 years of experience teaching and researching education methods, we’ve seen that when faculty are able to engage students in implementation, students embrace it. For instance, we once split a class into Teams A and B. We gave both teams a real-world climate change challenge, but we asked Team A to develop an idea to address the challenge, and we asked Team B to develop an idea and implement it. Specifically, we asked Team A to develop a low-cost way to help homeowners decrease their energy usage.

At the end of the semester, Team A presented an idea for an energy efficiency scorecard they had developed based on feedback from classmates and the teaching team throughout the semester. During this same time, we asked Team B to develop and implement an idea to protect vulnerable populations from extreme heat. By the end of the semester, Team B had established a public-private partnership between city officials and local nonprofits to invest resources in public cooling centers. In the same semester, Team A learned how to develop ideas to solve real-world challenges, whereas Team B learned how to both develop those ideas and bring them to fruition.

Students and instructors can easily confuse having ideas with making them happen. When students present their ideas to stakeholders in class, students mistakenly take stakeholders’ enthusiasm as proof that stakeholders intend to implement their ideas. For example, Team A worked closely with a nonprofit program coordinator who visited class every other week throughout the semester, providing the team with animated feedback on their scorecard. But at the end of the semester, the nonprofit didn’t invest in distributing the scorecard, because it was already satisfied with the resources posted on its website. Only when the instructor requires students to implement an idea do the students understand the challenges of getting stakeholders to invest their time, money and energy in it.

How to Make It Happen

It’s easy to understand why instructors rarely train students in implementation. It’s expensive—especially compared with delivering lectures—and it requires a significant investment of time. It takes faculty members time to identify stakeholders who are willing to work with students over a semester, and it takes time to teach students how to work effectively with stakeholders. It requires deans, provosts and program directors to give instructors the time to find stakeholders and develop the curriculum to teach students to work with stakeholders. And it requires stakeholders to invest their time in working with students with unproven track records.

So, yes, it’s expensive and time-consuming. But it’s less expensive than failing to address social crises. In the face of global poverty, pandemics and climate change, society needs to train change agents in both developing and implementing ideas to address these crises. And we all have a part to play in making this happen.

If you are a faculty member, try to help make your students such change agents. Start with a small experiment: Can you find a community organization where students might show up to complete a day of service? As you gain experience and build relationships in the community, you can work toward engaging students in longer projects with more stakeholders.

If you are a provost, dean or program director in higher education, consider how you might establish and support professional development programs that help instructors train students in implementation.

In addition, if you are a student, you can do your part by organizing your friends to request classes that teach implementation so that administrators know there is high demand. If you are a donor or fund manager in philanthropy, seek out opportunities to fund these programs and support research to improve models for teaching implementation. And if you work in local government, a nonprofit organization or a social enterprise, consider how you might be able to work with students at your local college or university in mutually beneficial ways.

Such actions help our students not only to learn but to make their ideas work to improve society. In fact, our future depends on it.


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