University news – Challenges Online returns in 2021 after success of virtual event

Challenges Online will return – bigger and better – in 2021 following the success of the virtual event this summer.

The programme was developed and run when the University of Exeter’s well-established annual campus-based Grand Challenges programme had to move online during the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost 400 students, working in 67 teams across 16 time zones, sought to solve some of the most challenging global problems, thanks to a huge effort by the organising team.

Now Challenges Online will return again next June, with the experiences of 2020 being used to improve and grow the initiative. More students from other institutions around the world will be invited and online learning courses – MOOCs – created by the University of Exeter will be integrated into the programme.

A total of 98 per cent of students who took part in Challenges Online 2020 said it had improved their employability skills, 94 per cent would recommend the experience to other students and 90 per cent said it gave them opportunities they would not otherwise have had. The programme has been shortlisted in the Reimagine Education awards

The University of Exeter’s Student Startup team will be working with some of the student teams to join the Autumn Pre-Incubator programme. This is an intensive 8-week programme of core foundation skills workshops, inspirational speaker events and masterclasses to enable students build, test and launch new entrepreneurial ventures. Other teams will work with the Environment and Climate Emergency team to integrate their ideas in progressing the University’s Sustainability goals.

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This year University of Exeter students were joined by students at the University of South Florida, with this online collaboration saving around 20 tonnes of carbon compared to if the group had travelled to the UK.

Programme Manager Anka Djordjevic said: “We are so pleased students enjoyed Challenges Online 2020 and found it so valuable. This was a monumental effort by staff to move everything online within a short space of time, and we were extremely moved and proud to see the fantastic work students produced.

“We’ve learned a lot from making the event virtual. It allowed us to work without the limitations of physical space and to involve students from other institutions and external experts from across the world. Online methods of working were enthusiastically embraced by the students, which resulted in even more impressive energy and outputs than usual. They have been exposed to different ways of thinking and equipped with employable skills in collaboration, communication and the delivery of presentations to a large audience.”

Professor Lisa Harris said: “This is an example of innovative educational practice which can be adapted in a variety of contexts to enhance the learning experience for staff and students across the institution. The experience of working online utilising newly acquired digital skills has provided valuable skills for studying online in the upcoming academic year, and beyond for employment in the post-COVID world.”

The 362 students who completed the challenges worked to come up with solutions to problems facing the climate and environment, food sustainability, fake news and loneliness and mental health. They worked one to one within small groups, groups of students to facilitator, academic to large cohorts and technical and programme support to all participants. They were supported by PhD students and academics as they worked in groups, and then presented their work to everyone on the final day via a live event streamed on YouTube.

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Business School student participant Poppy Osborne said: “One of the most notable skills employers say graduates lack nowadays is “resilience”. To be thrown into a group of people who you don’t know, working on Teams, a platform many had never used before, to tackle such broad topics and attempt to produce deliverables, in just 5 days, may appear quite daunting. Definitely a great opportunity to develop resilience!”


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