Be yourself, everyone else is already taken

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” There’s no evidence that Oscar Wilde produced this popular quote that is  attributed to him, but these words nevertheless speak to importance of being authentic.

Wilde did indeed write about being real in his letter De Profundis during his imprisonment for gross indecency. “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

How can we help our students become more authentic? How might they separate their own creative thoughts from other’s opinions? How can they drive true innovation that is socially relevant?

At McMaster Engineering, we answer these questions by engaging students in hands on minds on learning that brings meaning and relevance to student learning. We ask students to solve real-world problems, scenarios and challenges. Our faculty members have pioneered the application of problem based learning in engineering disciplines, where the problems that students consider drive their learning.

Since we recognize that many of the most powerful student experiences take place outside of classrooms and labs, we have strong traditions of experiential learning, student co-curricular involvement and learning approaches. This environment helps our students develop more than just academic proficiency by encouraging them to be leaders and entrepreneurs, and assume social responsibility.

Through this out-of-classroom infrastructure, our students take an active role in their learning. They apply what they learn, assess themselves and their peers in clubs and teams, track how they are able to apply classroom learning to real life projects, and think critically.

A U.S. study of university graduates indicates that the type of institution a student attends matters less than what that student experiences there. Yet, just 3% of all  graduates had experiences as students that relate to great jobs and great lives afterward.

This study found that professors who cared about them,excited them about learning and encouraged them to pursue their dreams,  a relevant internship or job as a student, active involvement in extracurricular activities, and working on long term hands on minds on projects made students better engaged at work after graduating.

We encourage our faculty and staff members to be caring mentors. Our students work on long term projects. We excite them about learning. We are building the Gerald Hatch Centre to house extracurricular activities and experiential learning. Half of our students graduate with a co-op designation and about three quarters have co-op experiences.

We focus on what students should be doing in a university and how they should be learning. By doing so, we actively facilitate the engagement of our students with their learning and futures.

We can do better.  Hannan is a rising third year student who came by recently offering suggestions to enhance experiential learning. A side conversation revealed that had designed a heated toque, which he abandoned, thinking it to be a trivial project. “It broke in any case in a couple of days,” he said.

Hannan and I discussed how our students can enclose themselves inside a university bubble. Had he been exposed more to innovators and entrepreneurs outside this bubble, he would likely have been better prepared to apply classroom knowledge to real life solutions and approached the design of the toque as the development of a smart electronic textile.

There are many ways to engage students and we must do more in this area. Engaged students become engaged citizens. They live and work with a driving passion to improve the wellbeing of our world.

Our aspiration is to produce world changers.

(Recommend reading: Life in College Matters for Life After College.)

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