Prepare students for what they want to do: examples of best-in-class courses that inspire invention and innovation

Gone are the days when undergraduate students learned theory without the opportunity to practice and apply the lessons learned.  Today, more and more students are attracted to, and inspired by, solving real world problems and learning by inventing; many who stick with this are then also learning by deploying (innovating).

While I’m sure there are similar courses offered at other universities, two courses at MIT that empower students to address real-life problems come to mind immediately: Amy Smith’s "Development Lab" (D-Lab) and Jhonatan Rotberg’s "NextLab". It is interesting to note that Amy and Jhonatan are both lecturers, not professors.

D-Lab and NextLab are comprised of a multi-semester series of experiences that empower students to collaboratively work with local partners to identify and address challenges of poverty and quality of life in developing countries. In the classroom, field and lab students develop an appreciation for cultures, capacity building, sustainability, the design process, technology, and the realities of deployment. New ventures – non-profit, for-profit, social enterprise – may result from the students’ work.

These classes are constantly oversubscribed and attract students from across MIT’s schools and area universities, including Harvard. The amazing interchange between people with different experiences and knowledge is rife with inventive potential and perspectives. Competitions specifically geared towards designing products for those who don’t fall within the wealthiest 10% of consumers ("Design for the other 90%") and those with development tracks are on the rise at universities.

Learning by inventing and learning by innovating are the future of education. For the U.S. to remain economically competitive, it is imperative that more students enter technology fields. Universities, colleges and high schools should embrace the "learning by inventing" approach and respond to students’ interest to help those living on less than US$2/day. Isn’t it our responsibility to give students the tools to tackle the real challenges of today’s – and tomorrow’s – world?

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  • Gregory Ferenstein

    Great post! I fully agree that problem-based learning is necessary in higher education. As someone who is trying to push it in his own university, I can tell you its tough. There is a lot of resistance. Too many faculty snub their nose at practical learning as something for vocational schools. What is needed is innovative curricula that merges vocational and traditional learning methods (I have some models...anyone else have ideas?)

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