Social Innovation Labs change how students face complex issues

Students taking a class offered through the Baylor Social Innovation Collaborative (BAY-SIC) initiative had the opportunity to participate in a river paddle trip while learning about water pollution. Photo Courtesy of the Baylor School of Education

By Kaylee Greenlee | Reporter

Baylor launched a series of new classes last fall to encourage collaboration among faculty and students in different departments. Labeled “social innovation labs,” the classes are part of the Baylor Social Innovation Collaborative (BAY-SIC) initiative to develop deeper levels of problem solving through working with others and thinking differently. The course will be offered again in fall of 2018.

The course offered last semester, “Water, River, and Community: Healthy River, Healthy Community,” was a problem-based, community-embedded and transdisciplinary learning experience that involved students in an exploration of the “wicked” problem of water. The course focused on recognition of the universal, complex nature of water problems and incorporated an inquiry-based approach to examine local water issues as a model for global water issues.

Charlie Walter, director of the Mayborn Museum, said the course is open to students of all majors in an effort to broaden the spectrum of opinions on how to solve the complex issue of water pollution.

“Having those different lenses gives you the ability to see things that other people don’t see because the thing about these grand challenges is that there is no one answer,” Walter said.

Over the course of the semester, the students were able to explore the Brazos through literature and hands-on experiences. They participated in a river paddle trip, visited the local water treatment and sewage treatment plants and collected water samples to better understand the issues surrounding the Brazos.

“What we did was explore the river and the water issues around Waco kind of in-depth, and then we zoomed out to look at water issues going on around the world,” Walter said.

In conjunction with their field work, students developed and conducted an economic survey exploring the value of the part of Waco Creek that runs through campus. The students proposed a one-time $25 increase in student fees from $1,095 to $1,120 to fund the project, followed by a $5 increase in student fees for subsequent years for maintenance. The project addresses both the litter and aesthetic problems associated with this section of the river, and 77 percent of respondents voted in favor of funding the project.

The students also heard from a panel on water management in the Brazos Basin that included representatives from federal, state and non-governmental entities; and were given the opportunity to Skype with Sally Jewell, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior under the Obama administration. Jewell discussed water issues that she had been involved with and issues she had seen at the national level – many of which were identified in the Brazos.

“It helped [the students] to understand that it is such a multi-faceted, complex problem, and that to look at that issue, or any complex issue, from just one perspective isn’t going to give them the complete picture or a complete solution,” said Dr. Suzanne Nesmith, associate professor of science education.

Nearing the end of the semester, the students developed interactive river stations based on their experiences in the class to share with elementary students at the Mayborn Museum. The museum hosted a two-day event where visitors could interact with the students about the different ways they had learned about the river.

“You have to think about how you can impact the younger generations to care about this problem,” said Dr. Sandi Cooper, professor of mathematics education.

The students’ last assignment was on an international scale where they were required to explore what exactly an international water issue truly is. Through this assignment, the students were able to see the commonalities between international and local water issues, and that they also had to be evaluated from ecological, economical, ethical, environmental and legal standpoints.

“Even with that, we have to start in our own backyard and learn from it here so that we can begin to see what issues may spread,” Walter said.