University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

The Changing Face of Education: T-Shaped Students

April 30, 2012fred.roseArticlesComments Off

Higher Education has been in the news a lot these last few months, mostly because of the ongoing issues with student loans and debates on the value of a college education. But there are a lot of other more fundamental changes going on. It’s something I’ll write about over the next few weeks. Acara is a program that is in the middle of this changing university education, so we are in midst of navigating many of these challlenges. In the very early days of my career in the technology business, I had a boss who called what we were doing on the leading edge of chip design research, the “bleeding edge”, because we got bloody a lot from breaking new ground. Acara is similar, we’ve tried lots of new things, some of them have made us bloody.

In this post I am going to talk about what are sometimes called T-Shaped people. This is a term that was first used by Tim Brown of IDEO, and is a popular term in Silicon Valley. This extensive article in the New Yorker about Stanford, (a good article, I will come back to it in later posts) describes how Stanford uses the term to describe desired attributes in their students. What is a T-shaped student? Namely a student that is very deep in one topic (the I) and then has some cross-disciplinary experience (the top horizontal bar to make the T). Universities are generally excellent at developing students into an I shape. Whether the student is studying engineering, design, public health, business, ecology or any other discipline, a university like ours does a terrific job of teaching students the theory and basic knowledge of that field. Students generally go into a major because they like it and have a passion for it but ultimately they want to use that knowledge to make an impact in the world. That’s where the T comes in. That means sticking your head up out of the I, looking around, working with other disciplines, and understanding how they work together to solve real problems. Universities traditionally have not done very well at putting the T’s on students.

Acara is in many ways a program to make the T. We uses words like social entrepreneurship, sustainable development, designing solutions, but in effect, what we are doing is putting students into real life, multi-disciplinary situations, which require using both broad and deep skills of the team members. This requires students from multiple colleges and majors across the university, it requires a curriculum that focuses on the broad topics, it requires lecturers and mentors from different disciplines, it requires working on real problems and not the least, it requires cooperation across all these groups in the university. Traditional university departments are set up to be deep (a PhD is a pretty big I). Acara, because it is part of a multi-disciplinary center like IonE, not part of a particular college, and has a dual mission of education AND impact, is perfectly situated for making the T.

It’s important to make sure there is both a vertical and a horizontal to the student. There has been a lot of press about Peter Thiel and his Thiel Fellowship to take young people under 20 and pay them not to go to university. Well, they do work in a concentrated academy of sorts, so it’s more like a self directed study. But it’s not likely to develop the depth of training needed if you are going to tackle serious problems in the world. Along the same lines as Thiel, Jonah  Lehrer (who seems to be the new Malcolm Gladwell) in the Wall Street Journal talks about what a college education really should be teaching students, and rightly focuses on T skills.  I certainly don’t disagree with Thiel or Lehrer; the ability to learn how to think and learn on your own, to work with others, and to learn how to make an impact are the core of my beliefs also. But an 18 year old, no matter how brilliant, generally does not have much of an I. Unfortunately, recent examples like Instagram selling to Facebook for $1B do not help this case much, perception-wise. Students will think they can write an app, and that’s it. Instagram is a nice, fun app, but it’s not worth a billion dollars and is hardly going to tackle a serious problem like renewable energy. That takes I people and T people.

This all seems obvious, and is certainly done well in pockets in many universities, so why isn’t it done more? First of all, it’s harder than it looks. You need to do it collaboratively from a teaching standpoint, as not many people are able to teach something so diverse single handedly. That means bringing in other lecturers. That’s time consuming, logistically challenging, and can be expensive if you pay them. Universities are notoriously siloed organizations, which makes this bureaucratically challenging. And there is not a particular incentive for an individual professor to do this. It’s not what they are typically rewarded for. It takes a few champions in a university willing to spend the time to make it happen. Here at the UMN, we have found the right champions who believe this is crucial for the 21st-century university. Universities develop I’s, it is important to do the T’s here as well.

Creating T-shaped people is a key goal for Acara. We want to take I’s and help them to use those skills to make real impact.

Acara is a social entrepreneurship program of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management.


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