On Students Solving "Real World" Problems

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.