One of my biggest frustrations as a college student was spending so much effort on work that I knew wouldn't benefit anyone. The moment I got a project with real world application, my motivation and efforts skyrocketed.
When I think about all the focus and energy that goes into a research paper that gets a grade slapped on it and dies a slow death in a filing cabinet somewhere, I have a sad inside.
Because here's the thing. I live in a world that has tons of unfulfilled needs. There are questions with easy answers that aren't available to the people who need them. There are wasteful operations running unoptimized. We have history undocumented. Public property unmaintained. Resources under-utilized. People unfulfilled.
Why can't we apply some of this student-powered energy towards these problems?
Some would argue that real world problems are messy, and thus not good for education. To that, I say, what is an undergrad education for, if not for preparing me to solve real world problems? There is no better experience for solving real world problems, than solving real world problems.
Yes, there should be some theory, but we should err on the side of practical. Why do employers value apprenticeship programs, internships, capstones and senior projects more than other classwork? Because the students involved in those activities are more prepared for those real world problems.
Many schools let their journalism students manage the school newspaper. That's great! Can we expand that philosophy? Could law students help with the school's patent work? Could accounting students help file taxes? Are there any construction projects that the engineering students can help out with? To be fair, some schools are implementing programs like these, and I think that's great. I recently read about a teacher whose research assignments were repurposed as Wikipedia entries, so the rest of the world could benefit from their efforts. How great is that?
We need to get teachers to stop assigning students problems where the answers are in the back of the book.
I've really taken to heart the principles of the low-information diet recently. You can spend lifetimes just reading newspapers, online articles, blog posts, and Buzzfeed lists, and you'd end up with nothing to show for it. These are the empty carbs of the internet. Sometimes I'll catch myself on an online information binge and when I do, I usually feel similar to how I'd feel after an eating binge. Blergh.
So now, whenever I catch myself in an online reading cycle, I try to recover a bit of value by adding my voice. If I'm reading a blog post, I try to leave a comment. Even just a "thanks for writing that, I thought it was interesting" is a valuable thing for somebody who is writing posts on their own time, and could use some encouragement.
If I've taken the time to look somebody up on Twitter or Linkedin, I try to leave them a message, saying "Hi, I just came across your profile and it looks like you're working on some cool things. See you around!"
If I catch myself on Facebook looking up an old friend, I try to drop them a message and say "Hey, I was just thinking about you today… I hope you're doing well."
It's not much, but at least it's something. Just reading, is nothing.
Online consumption is time-consuming and value-poor, so if you see an opportunity to connect with somebody else in the process, then don't let it pass by.
When we are wasting time, we have so much more to answer for than the previous generations did. We have free and low-cost tools available to make a ruckus. We have more disposable income than ever before. We have more free time, granted by modern conveniences like dishwashers, online shopping, and automatic bill pay.
Our excuses for not stepping up and trying to make a difference are running out.