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Course that Takes Creative Approach to Complex Challenges Wins Science Prize


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Kip Hodges discusses the MIT version of Solving Complex Problems.

[Video courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare]

Kip Hodges firmly believes that solving the world’s major problems requires a multidisciplinary approach, yet much of the education students receive is parceled out in separate, non-overlapping subjects.

“The problem is that most of the really exciting questions that face our society can only be solved using multidisciplinary modes of analysis from multiple fields,” said Hodges, who is a professor at Arizona State University and founding director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “We need to teach our undergraduates to think creatively beyond the boundaries of specific disciplines.”

With this in mind, Hodges created an undergraduate course when he was at MIT that asks students to attack a huge multi-faceted problem from many angles. Known as Solving Complex Problems, the course is the winner of the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).

Science’s IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about Solving Complex Problems was published on 30 November.

“Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science,” said Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts. “We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources.”

Even as a student, Hodges had a predilection for integrating different fields of knowledge. After starting at the University of North Carolina as a journalism major, Hodges switched his field of study mainly because the journalism program required students to take nearly all of their classes within that department. “That interfered with what I thought was the great spirit of a liberal arts education,” he said.

Returning to an earlier passion, which had manifested itself when Hodges was a child collecting minerals, he chose to study geology, which was by its nature comprised of many sciences. Over time, his focus narrowed to continental tectonics, the study of the origin and evolution of mountain ranges, but that area of study was really anything but narrow, involving such fields as geochemistry, geophysics, and field science.

“Geologists tend to work across boundaries in different fields,” Hodges said. “It was natural for me to think like that.”

Hodges received his Ph.D. at MIT and went on to become dean of undergraduate curriculum. In that capacity, he favored keeping students’ focus broad for as long as possible, rather than having them narrow their course of study early on. MIT had a policy of not having students declare their majors until the end of their freshman year. Hodges thought it made sense for the students to broaden their intellectual horizons at least until that point. “I advocated for trying to get students to think really broadly instead of narrowing down as soon as they walked in the door.”

“I think when you’re 17, you have a tendency to have not thought through what your career arc might be,” Hodges said. “What’s more, I don’t think the single-discipline approach is okay for teaching you how to be a creative scientist.”

Informed about a donation meant to create something transformative in the undergraduate curriculum at MIT, Hodges came up with Solving Complex Problems. When the course was approved, he quit his job as dean to teach it.

The idea of the course is to present students with a challenge that is deceptively complex and has no straightforward answer. The challenges often involve a wide range of considerations and ramifications. A challenge to design a mission of exploration to Mars to look for signs of life, for instance, considered such questions as how life should be defined, how the students could be sure that the search for traditional signs of life would be sufficient to conclude that life didn’t exist on the planet, whether the mission should be manned or unmanned, how the spacecraft should be designed, and such practical considerations as how much the mission would cost and who would pay for it.

Hodges said the course instructor presents the challenge, and the students separate into teams to tackle different aspects of it. Often they are assigned to teams working on aspects of the challenge that are outside their strongest areas of expertise. Each student’s grade depends not only on their own contribution, but on the quality of their team’s work and the quality of the class’s overall approach to the challenge.

Solving Complex Problems and the classes that have developed out of it are not intended to replace standard science classes, Hodges said. Rather, they add value.

The challenges either have no solution, or no one has been able to find a solution thus far, he said. “In this case, if it’s an easy-to-solve problem, you have failed as an instructor.”

“You get a lot of wild-eyed ‘what do you mean?’ looks,” Hodges said, adding that freshmen at MIT were especially panicked when they were first exposed to the open-ended nature of the questions involved. At ASU, where Hodges has implemented classes similar to Solving Complex Problems, students are sophomores and a little further along, and are more accustomed to a multidisciplinary approach. At both institutions, students begin to understand and accept the idea behind the course as it progresses.

In fact, both students and faculty end up very enthusiastic about the course, Hodges said. Faculty tell him about students who arrive in their classes with a functional knowledge of rocket equations, which they’ve taught themselves as needed. Students who have taken the class often volunteer as upper-class mentors to others taking it.

When Solving Complex Problems alumnus Solomon Hsiang published a paper on the correlation between climate and conflict in the journal Nature in 2011, Hodges said Hsiang told him: “I hope you can see the fingerprints of Solving Complex Problems all over this paper.”

In Hodges’ view, a class where students take charge of their own learning and employ their creativity is especially important in the Information Age. “Students learn so aggressively on their iPads and cell phones. They can get practically any information they want for nothing,” he said. “What the Internet can’t do is teach creativity.”

Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science, agreed, adding that Solving Complex Problems and its curricular descendants “give students an opportunity to do something imaginative and constructive with their accumulated knowledge.”

Hodges said he hopes his IBI prize and his essay in Science will lead others to use the Solving Complex Problems approach at other universities, in the humanities and arts, and even in high schools, where it could be employed “as a cure for senioritis” by offering a time for reflection on all the students have learned.

Widely duplicating the approach could change undergraduate education, Hodges believes.

“I would love to see a sort of revolution in higher learning,” Hodges said, “where we think of our colleges and universities as environments for learning, not places where we fill students with information.”


Read the essay, “Solving Complex Problems,” by Kip Hodges.

See some of the final presentations from the MIT interdisciplinary course Solving Complex Problems.

Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.


Michaela Jarvis

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