Mechanical engineering student Lucas Manke ’20, second from left, joined other students named University Innovation Fellows by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. This global program trains student leaders to create new opportunities for their peers to engage with innovation, entrepreneurship, design thinking and creativity.
By DOUG DUNSTON, KEEN PROGRAM COORDINATOR KEEN: Students Learn ‘Fearless Participation’
What distinguishes people who are talking at each other from people who are engaged in conversation? Two activities that are indispensable if an exchange of words is to be elevated to a valuable conversation are listening, and the sharing of tentative thoughts and questions that invite further exploration. It is often through conversation that innovative ideas, solutions and movements emerge. But how does one learn how to listen? Or to share the untested, still- forming thoughts that can open the way to mutual learning? In a pilot “boot camp” aimed at sophomore engineering students, the School of Engineering, with support from KEEN (the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network), set out to see what engineering students could gain from an intensive, experiential course on “fearless participation,” the potent combination of responsive openness to input from others
and willingness to share incipient and early-stage ideas and questions. Three hours a day for eight days, 18 St. Thomas students immersed themselves in guided participatory exercises in improvisation, storytelling and empathy. Facilitated discussions scaffolded the exercises, providing the students space and time for the kind of reflection that could help transform the experiential exercises into useful insights. Over the course of the eight days, the students learned to detect when they were scripting replies in their head instead of hearing what was being said, and they practiced returning to intentional listening. They experimented with contributing ideas that were still in the formative stages as opposed to only sharing thoughts they judged polished or “safe.” They tried “listening while talking” –
attending to an audience while presenting so they could see where communication was faltering and could make adjustments on the fly. Can “fearless participation” be learned? When asked which of the listening and contributing skills they thought an individual could develop or improve, one student remarked, “I think that all of them can improve with practice. They can be practiced literally anywhere, like in a group project, when talking to friends and family, and even passing by someone.” As the boot camp graduates continue through their undergraduate programs and beyond, we look forward to seeing how they impact the quality of participation in their teams and communities. We look forward to more and better conversations.
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