This story appears as part of the Spring/Summer 2020 cover story — Big Solve — in which faculty and staff use the holistic St. Mary’s style of education to offer solutions to some of our greatest challenges.
Last spring, I toured the Southwest Research Institute with a group of students to learn about summer internships. In a whirlwind overview, our host told us about some of their current projects and the cutting-edge mathematics being used. After the visit, I wondered how our students could succeed at such internships if they wouldn’t encounter most of these topics until graduate school.
Back at St. Mary’s, the question became: How can I lead my students to becoming proactive, independent, deep, lifelong learners who could thrive in such an environment? How can I encourage them to wade past shallow textbook exercises into a deeper understanding?
Easy: Take the textbook out of the equation!
For the rest of the semester, I gave my students puzzles (i.e., nonstandard word problems related to the course material). Reactions were mixed. Some students thought it was not fair to be given a problem without examples and guidance; others saw it as a refreshing change from the textbook routine.
The most convincing feedback was gratitude from senior Mathematics major Ana Molina, who received a special internship at KPISOFT, a cloud-based tech company, the following summer after impressing her interviewers by applying the proactive independent thinking she learned from my puzzle experience.
Today’s graduates will enter a world about which we, their professors, know little except this: It will bring profound disruption. We’ve been reminded of that recently with the rapid change required to address the COVID-19 virus.
Learning absolutely must be proactive, independent, deep and lifelong. Isn’t that the point of the Greek precept, “Know thyself”? Yes, this is the foundation of a quality, integral education. This is what prepares students for adaptation and change.
Our students who learn to learn can become the very leaders the world needs now — and in the future.