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New approaches to education promote student entrepreneurship and engagement

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Engaging students in and out of the classroom. At the University of Alberta, students from all disciplines can immerse themselves in entrepreneurship.


Universities in Western Canada are continually raising the bar when it comes to creating exemplary student learning environments through curriculum innovation.

For example, students who want to be entrepreneurs and job creators rather than just another cog in the wheel are flocking to Entrepreneurship 101 at the University of Alberta. The course is taught with the understanding that being an entrepreneur requires the acquisition of many complementary skills, says assistant professor Matthew Grimes. Obviously it starts with having a great idea, but turning that idea into a viable business requires product development, refinement and testing – not to mention business savvy, including the ability to raise investment capital.

"The expertise needed to launch a business is often 'siloed' across various disciplines and faculties, so E101 is designed to break down those silos, inviting individuals from across disciplines to build teams and develop ideas instead of just brainstorming in front a whiteboard," says Dr. Grimes.

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The course is open to students in any year and in any discipline, attracting everyone from nutritionists and theatre students to engineers and computer scientists. Part of the course is being taught in the school's Entrepreneurship HUB, a networking centre that Dr. Grimes describes as an incubator for entrepreneurship where future job creators can immerse themselves in an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

"It helps create what we like to call a virtuous cycle, where anyone walking through the door is exposed to others with complementary skills and the same enthusiasm," says Dr. Grimes.

At the University of Manitoba, students take
part in a service-learning trip to Bangladesh. SUPPLIED

At the University of Manitoba, a unique program is teaching students to think critically about what a just and sustainable society looks like, and is also helping them develop the skills needed to work for change.

"Service-learning initiatives offered through the Alternative Reading Week Winnipeg program give students the opportunity to learn about and participate in social change, both in Canada and abroad," says Susie Taylor, lead service-learning coordinator. After six weeks of training, students take part in week-long placements at non-profits followed by a debriefing that helps them understand how they can implement what they have learned in their daily lives.

Instead of parachuting students into short-term placements and "quick fix" community development projects, the Alternative Reading Week has students participate in and learn about demand-driven programs that build on the community's own development efforts and that respond to community-identified needs.

"We're trying to introduce students to the complexity of community development, and the real issues of sustainability that these programs can pose," explains Ms. Taylor. Preliminary testing indicates that the programs are enhancing intercultural competency.

"It was a life-changing experience that helped me put into context my place in the world," reported a 2013 participant. "The program is more of a learning and growing experience than a voluntary work project; you have to put in time and effort, but the outcome is very rewarding."

Associate professor David Leach at the University
of Victoria is looking at ways to increase engagement
through interactive media. SUPPLIED

Meanwhile, at the University of Victoria, David Leach, chair of the department of writing, is asking the question: can the tools and techniques of interactive media motivate the "gamer generation" to study math formulas and conjugate French verbs with the same intensity as when they play Grand Theft Auto or Candy Crush Saga?

A couple of experiments suggest they can. In one experiment, Mr. Leach split students into two groups, one studying traditionally and the other according to gamification principles that included the acquisition of achievement badges, points, placement on leaderboards and the participation in "quests."

"We found that the gamified group spent more time online, had more interaction with each other, and that the top five participants were women," reports Mr. Leach. Another experiment required students to use smartphone apps to design the campus of the future. One group developed a health and fitness paradise that promoted physical activity, while another came up with a dystopian "alterverse" where surveillance had run amok.

"Calling it gaming makes it sound childish; it's more appropriate to think of it as interactive media," says Mr. Leach. "Given the influence of video games on our students' lives, universities need to take interactive digital media seriously, both as a subject and as a tool for learning. Used in the right way, games can motivate students, help them think critically and even promote social good. A better world needs better games, and that should start in our education system."

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This content was produced by Randall Anthony Communications, in partnership with The Globe and Mail's advertising department. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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