The course description promises a “wide range of ways of contributing to global challenges, helping you to find directions that fit with your strengths and interests and to develop a sense of agency and empowerment”.
Available as an elective to all ANU undergraduates, Optimism and Agency in Times of Change is the brainchild of researchers from chemistry, environmental science, engineering, and science communication, who all saw the need for a course unlike any other.
“We were seeing that students, throughout their degrees, were being taught about the problems of the world,” course convenor Professor Kylie Catchpole of the School of Engineering explains. “But not the solutions, or how to contribute to the solutions. We’ve not taught them optimism.
“So students were feeling quite disempowered by the idea that these issues are much too big for them to do anything about.
“What we do in this course is help them to identify where they could actually make a difference.”
The course assessment includes designing and scoping a project which can make an impact. Students are taught to identify what opportunities there are available for them within their existing circles of influence, and to use the skills and expertise they already have.
“Really, I see this course as being for my younger self,” Professor Catchpole said. “I did a degree in physics and was very interested in understanding the secrets of the universe. At the same time, I cared a lot about the environment, but I didn’t see myself as an environmental activist. I knew what I cared about, but I didn’t know how to do it, and that’s what I want to teach students.”
But, she says, to make anything happen, in either the world at large or your own career, first you need optimism.
“It’s necessary to believe that things can be changed in order to make that change. And there’s no need to wait until you’re somehow more powerful before you take that action. The important point is to be looking at where you are at the moment, and seeing that we can always do something.”
Tapping technology for health, environment
One previous project was an Instagram account which aimed to reduce the diagnostic latency in endometriosis. The account was set up by a group of medical science students and provided evidence-based information for women on what they could say to their doctor to get the help and advice they needed.
“These students had already studied the issues of endometriosis. They were very aware that it often takes ten years to be diagnosed, and they had written essays about this. What they didn’t realise is that they had the capability to do something about it,” Professor Catchpole said.
“When they got lots of positive feedback and engagement on the account, the students felt really empowered, because they were able to help somebody. They put themselves into a position of leadership that will, in turn, increase their influence in that area and open up bigger opportunities for them.”
The course also includes a field trip to Mulligan’s Flat Nature Reserve, which Professor Catchpole says is “a great example of optimism and agency in action”.
“It’s a wildlife sanctuary for endangered bettongs, where they’ve been introduced to a fenced area. And the conservationists from Mulligan’s Flat tell the story of all the challenges they had making that happen because the process hasn’t been at all smooth. It shows students what’s possible if you have an idea that you want to pursue and you’re willing to overcome all those obstacles.”
For Professor Catchpole, the course is about more than finding practical solutions; it’s about finding meaning, too.
“We wanted to point out to students that they can be much more active in choosing their direction in life by looking for an alignment between their strengths, their interests, and what the world needs. You don’t have to just do the next course listed on your program.”