At the UniC School, students start working on challenges from the fourth year on; these are real assignments for real clients.
A challenge is an interdisciplinary assignment, in line with the student’s topic of choice and linked to a social theme. Over the course of eight weeks, students work together in teams on a topic of their choice. They also get to decide how they are going to handle their subject. Every week, two hours are allocated for them to work on their assignments. At UniC, graduation students work on three different challenges a year.
The themes of the challenges are chosen by the teachers. Over the past year, students have already worked on the themes living, difference, solidarity and sustainability. The students are allowed to choose a topic within a theme, but they must stay within certain limits.
More and more freedom
That is why the assignments in the fourth year are still sharply defined. For example, the assignment for the sustainability challenge was: Come up with an innovative way of dealing with rising sea levels. In the fifth and sixth year, students are given more and more freedom in choosing an assignment and the way they complete them.
How do students pick a topic? Hanneke: “We ask them to think about what they are good at and what is of interest to them and to make a choice based on that. This gives them room to develop their talents and motivate them to work on their assignment.”
Police station of the future
An important skill that is applied during the challenge is cooperation. Students form teams of two to five people. This means they must find students with a common interest in the same topic. For the sustainability challenge, the teams came up with topics such as ‘sustainable fashion’, ‘a sustainable cafeteria at UniC’, ‘sustainable nightlife establishments’, and ‘the police station of the future.’
For many challenges, students have to collaborate with an external party. In the exam classes it is even mandatory. Hanneke noticed that this helps to improve the students’ social skills: “I heard that some students who used to be very timid are now more comfortable with approaching people.” The contact with external parties also helps to further motivate students. They do real assignments for real clients: an advisory report, research or a product for an existing company that has a use for it. In other words: a concrete goal and real feedback.
Doggy bags to prevent food waste
For the sustainability challenge, the students came up with an idea whereby supermarkets put refrigerated products, left by clients at the cash register, back in the refrigerators on time. Their solution is being used by one of the shops. For a restaurant, the students researched the use of doggy bags to deal with food waste and wrote an advisory report for the restaurant.
Besides the (interdisciplinary) knowledge the students acquire while doing the challenges, students train different skills, as well. They work together with their team members and external clients but learn to look critically at where their information comes from through independent research. They learn how to reflect upon their work and to give and receive feedback within their team. Because they work practically independently and can shape their assignment as they please, they can continue to develop their creativity and problem-solving skills.
The teacher’s role
Getting in touch with an external party for the first time is often a huge step for students. This is done by the teacher, or together. It is important to do this on time, because it takes a lot of time. But to Hanneke, this effort comes naturally: “It is the teacher’s job to introduce students to the real world. That is why we introduce the students to these contacts.”
Do you want to create a challenge for your students? Here are some of Hanneke’s tips:
- Do not just start out of the blue, look for a method that suits your school. UniC used the design thinking method.
- Start contacting external parties on time (sometimes this takes up to six months!).
- Involve the parents from the start and ask for their help where needed.
- Stay in touch with contacts, even if it does not result in a collaboration straightaway.