Classes target int’l challenges

The courses are part of the school’s strategic plan, which was approved last school year.

by Melissa Steinken

As the University of Minnesota’s strategic plan enters its second year, administrators and faculty members are looking at potential research topics for the plan’s Grand Challenges initiative. 
School leaders have introduced around 130 research ideas for the next phase of the University’s grand challenge program, which aims to help solve global issues such as poverty. 
“Most people are aware of the fact that there are vexing problems of our time,” said Raymond Duvall, political science professor and chair of Provost’s Grand Challenges Research Strategies Team. “The University is making strides to solve them.”
Last week, members of the committee responsible for reviewing grand challenge research proposals, along with faculty members currently working on projects for the initiative, updated the Board of Regents on this year’s progress and research goals, which include solving the challenges of poverty, social inequality, hunger and disease, climate change and religious intolerance.
“At times, I’m skeptical of strategic plans,” said Regent Linda Cohen at last week’s board meeting. “When this was first brought out, it was so gigantic, but the ways this one has been implemented … is remarkable.”
This fall, five Grand Challenges courses were open to students due to a delay in the course approval process, said Leslie Schiff, associate dean for University curriculum. She said leaders created the courses to supplement the ongoing studies.
“This fall there are relatively low enrollments,” she said. “It’s an evolving program except for that bump from bad timing in registration.”
She said there will be five to eight courses for the spring semester, with two already approved. The courses provide credit for liberal education requirements, Schiff said.
Students from any college or major can take the Grand Challenges courses, said sociology professor and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Alejandro Baer, who also who teaches a Grand Challenges course. 
“For our class, we are trying to teach a subject that is important to tackle in order to create a just society,” he said. “[We discuss] the choices societies and groups face after war and genocide.”
Food systems senior Natalie Vandenburgh,  who is taking one of the courses this semester, said the interdisciplinary nature of the courses help bring out passion in students. 
Faculty members hope to address inequality and underrepresentation for some groups of people, said Regents professor Ann Masten. 
“There’s distrust in institutions,” she said. “People think that we need more policies in institutions that require equality.”
To help narrow down the proposals, the Provost’s research team has held public forums to develop a strategy for moving ahead with research.