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New course brings wicked problems to the classroom

A new course winter quarter kicks off a series designed for undergraduates across the university. It will be taught by Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability Dean Arun Majumdar and Dean of Research Kathryn “Kam” Moler.

Unlike mathematical problems with a single solution, the wicked problems of sustainability lack clarity in their objectives and solutions. They are subject to real-world constraints that involve risks, trade-offs, limitations – and an endless number of approaches. 

Undergraduate students who think that challenge sounds like fun should consider taking a new course co-taught by Arun Majumdar and Kathryn “Kam” Moler winter quarter. The deans will be teaching SUSTAIN 101A: Decision Making for Sustainable Energy – and the duo are just as excited about the opportunity as they are about forming Stanford’s first new school in 75 years.

As leader of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Majumdar facilitates the growth and development of the new school, which launched Sept. 1 with the goal of fostering understanding of Earth, climate, and society to create solutions at a global scale. Moler, who is vice provost and dean of research, has been immersed in the formation of the new school since 2020, having served as transition dean from December 2021 to June 2022. 

After countless meetings with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends of the university for direction on the school, the two look forward to engaging with students in their own classroom next quarter.

“We’re really counting on the students that take the class the first time to give us feedback about what works and what doesn’t work – they’ll almost co-develop the curriculum,” said Moler, who is also a professor of physics, applied physics, and energy science and engineering. “I hope by teaching today’s students, it will make us better administrators, too.”

The course was designed with approaches honed by Stanford professor of physics and education Carl Wieman, who pioneered the use of experimental techniques to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching strategies for physics and other sciences. It brings together the instructors’ decades of immersion in their subject expertise, love of teaching, and experience leading complex teams through influential decision making. While the course has some overlap with other offerings at the university, the team hopes the outcomes of SUSTAIN 101A will be applicable to all kinds of scenarios that students may encounter in their lives and future careers. 

“If you think about what leaders do – whether it’s in policy making, businesses, or some other organization – they make decisions,” said Majumdar, who is also a professor of mechanical engineering and former co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy. “The topics they make decisions about are different depending on the context, but the critical thinking skills of how to make decisions and understanding the implications of decisions – that’s pretty common.”

Because Moler and Majumdar worked together in the summer leading up to the launch of the school, they had the opportunity to volunteer as instructors for the first offering in the SUSTAIN 101 series of courses designed to appeal broadly to undergraduates across the university.

“Communal problem solving with your peers is one of the really fun things about being at Stanford, and Arun and I wanted to make sure that avenue was open to students at the beginning of their educational experience,” Moler said.

Majumdar added, “And in a typical action-oriented style, Kam said, ‘OK, let’s take out a whiteboard. Let’s just start jotting down things that we are talking about.’ ” 

Learning by doing

Their new course doesn’t have any prerequisites – a feature of most of the offerings being developed in the SUSTAIN 101 series in order to attract enrollment from frosh and sophomores. By focusing on these groups, the instructors hope to help students gain a breadth of perspective and create connections that will last through the rest of their tenure at Stanford. The major element that will facilitate those connections is experiential learning, according to Moler, Majumdar, and Senior Associate Dean for Education Lynn Hildemann.

“We’re defining experiential learning very broadly,” said Hildemann, who is also a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “For example, it can be public service, field trips, spending a quarter overseas, or assessing complicated real-world problems about sustainability that involve more than just one field.”

In Moler and Majumdar’s classroom, the experiential learning will involve breaking into small groups to analyze issues like the students’ personal carbon footprints and how Stanford could achieve net-zero emissions. 

“We’ll want students’ input on what factors a good solution should include,” Moler said. “Some people only want to get to net zero as quickly as possible. Other people feel that a solution isn’t acceptable unless it addresses environmental justice and social justice issues, and so we’ll have some thoughtful discourse on those different approaches.”

The students will also be exploring solutions for achieving President Joe Biden’s goal for the United States to have a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. 

“They’ll have to navigate the interplay between engineering, the readiness of technology, regulatory barriers and risks, how much capital investment is needed, regulatory barriers such as permitting, market issues, environmental justice implications,” Majumdar said. “Such technological and social issues will naturally emerge, and then they’ll see the interplay between all of them, which is a real-world problem.”

The class will be kept small, at 50 students, with the aim of helping them interact with each other and the instructors. Moler said she particularly hopes the students will take advantage of Majumdar’s unique expertise.

“It is super, super cool to be presenting a plan for how the nation can get to net zero in the electrical sector to the actual chair of the Secretary of Energy’s advisory board,” Moler said. “And that’s just the beginning of his qualifications.”

A broad focus

Because current graduate students in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability are pursuing degrees in departments that existed before the school formed, the committee directing curriculum plans is focusing on undergraduate offerings for the current academic year, according to Hildemann.

Following a call for proposals in early October, the education committee received 23 ideas for courses. Thirteen were proposals to be offered in spring or autumn 2023, and of those, five have been selected for funding by the school in the SUSTAIN 101 series. The spring offerings will include courses such as Climate 101, taught by climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, and The Sixth Extinction (and the Other Five), taught by paleobiologist Jonathan Payne

“We’re asking faculty to develop courses that for most of them are very different from the ones they’ve gotten really good at developing and revising and teaching,” said Hildemann, who will be issuing more calls for proposals within the next year.

They may start with smaller class sizes, but in addition to broad accessibility, an important element includes scalability, Hildemann said. 

“We’re doing things incrementally and we’re going to be looking at the level of demand for interest in classes of this type to help us understand how much bigger we might need to grow them,” Hildemann said. “The instructors will be making refinements as they figure out what’s going to work best.” 

Small taste, global reach

The direction being taken by the education committee, which is led by Hildemann, is driven by the school’s aim to create solutions at a global scale in collaboration with partners worldwide.

“I view our educational mission and the students we graduate as being able to leverage impact way beyond what faculty and staff in the school can do – and that impact is not just those in leadership roles, it’s everyone.”

Even if an undergraduate student takes only one or two courses through the school, then moves on to major in another discipline, they should gain memorable knowledge that can be carried into their future decision-making, she said.

“If we can get tens of thousands of students going out and each influencing their organization, nudging the suppliers and the collaborators they work with to think more sustainably – that’s when you start to really see an expanded impact,” Hildemann said. “It’s a type of ‘it takes a village’ mentality, that we need as many students as possible to leave Stanford not just caring about sustainability but feeling like they’ve learned enough to feel confident about speaking up in their neighborhood, in their town, in their place of work.”

“This new school is a wonderful opportunity to rethink what we want education to look like in the twenty-first century,” she added.

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