Transforming the undergrad experience: Munk One

“You shouldn’t wait until fourth year to have academic fun,” says program director Teresa Kramarz

In week 2, you will present to your colleagues a devastating fact – something you find disturbing, astounding, unbelievable, inhumane and solvable. You will ‘live with’ this fact throughout the course.

–syllabus for Munk One: Global Innovation I: Innovating for the Global

It’s bitterly cold outside the Munk School Observatory building, but inside the basement classroom, there’s a heated discussion going on. Was Hobbes right about life being nasty, brutish and short? Do people respond better to social norms or government rules? What did Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority really prove? 

If you came into the middle of this discussion, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d intruded on an upper-year seminar course. But the debate was taking place in Munk One: Global Innovation, a first-year course.

Munk One is offered by the Munk School of Global Affairs. Similar first-year programs are available at the seven U of T colleges, as well as the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses. They’re designed for small groups – no more than 25 students – and mix lectures, seminars, lab and group work and class exercises. Some have specific themes – Innis College offers “The Creative City” while University College calls its program “Engaging Toronto”.  

photo of Teresa Kramarz with studentsTeresa Kramarz (pictured at right) is the director of Munk One, and also teaches two of its courses, Global Problem-Solving: Laboratory Opportunities and Global Innovation II: Governing Global Public Goods (the third course, Global Innovation I: Innovating for the Global, is taught by Joseph Wong). She says she loves teaching first-year students.

“What’s great about them is they have a very open, no-holds-barred attitude to issues that many of us would find daunting. They’re eager, they’re grateful to be given the opportunity to actually do something about what interests them.”

Kramarz says the program attracts many types of students – not just ones interested in continuing on in Munk’s Peace, Conflict and Justice program but others such as aspiring doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and computer scientists. “We actively look for different disciplines to feed into the program – computer, math, science, life science students apart from the social science and humanities types.”

What they have in common, she says, is motivation. “They’re do-ers. They’re already engaged with the world. They may not have travelled overseas and built a school, but they see connections, they see how global problems are connected to local realities and they’re deeply motivated to do something. There’s this entrepreneurial spirit – I don’t mean private sector spirit – it’s just this spirit of doing something about global issues.”

Students get the chance to put that spirit into action in the lab course. Divided into small groups, they’re required to tackle a global challenge such as “how can sustainable development be achieved for all, while addressing global climate change?” or “how can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism and the use of weapons of mass destruction?” and then defend their solution to a jury of specialists in global affairs in a “Dragon’s Den”-like setting.

But that’s not all. Students get the chance to take their solutions even further, beyond the completion of the academic year. Apurva Kilambi took the course last year, and she ended up in Northern Ireland the following summer, helping to further develop her group’s Munk One project – an app to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder among refugees. 

“Northern Ireland was fantastic,” she says. “I’d never travelled away from home without my parents before, so I was really thrown into the deep end, but it was amazing, and I’m really proud of the work that we were able to do while we were there.”

Kilambi is now studying cell and systems biology, and hopes to either go into med school or research someday. She says Munk One prepared her well for second year. “It’s the high level of thinking, the kind of discussions you would have in a fourth-year class. The fact that we were able to have that in a first-year class really boosted my confidence.”

Current Munk One students Aviva Glassman and Danielle Pal are also hoping to take their Global Problem Solving Lab apps overseas this summer – to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s InnovNation program. Glassman’s group developed a messaging app called Cricket that can be used by dissidents to bypass Internet censorship.

“It’s basically a Bluetooth-powered Twitter,” Glassman explains. “It works like a daisy-chain – people can connect on Bluetooth and send out tweets and others would echo the tweets forward to reach more people. It was awesome because my lab member who did the coding created it in one evening. I didn’t even know that was something someone our age could possibly do.”

Pal’s group tackled the problem of recruitment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “We developed a mobile texting service that was aimed to psychologically alter the mentality around the issue of child soldiers. We created a specific formula for text messages that plays upon their cultural truisms and incorporates methods of commitment, reciprocity and exposure learning. We thought this solution was innovative because almost all other NGO initiatives focus on the rehabilitation aspect of child soldiers, whereas we would be targeting the issue at its core by focusing on prevention.”

Both Glassman and Pal hope to enter the Munk School’s Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies program next year. Right now, they’re enjoying Munk One and the back and forth of debate that both Kramarz and Wong encourage. “You learn by discussing and by listening to and rebutting other peoples’ opinions,” says Pal.

Kilambi agrees. “It’s something that can’t happen in a class that you have in Convocation Hall because there are just so many other students. It’s an incredible experience.”

Back in the Munk One classroom, the students are discussing a class exercise the previous week – a version of the old Rock Papers Scissors game – and whether it showed that humans are hard-wired to act in particular ways. 

“It proves Hobbes was right,” one student says. Instantly, several hands go up as others disagree. Kramarz leans back and lets her students talk, and learn.

Terry Lavender writes about global issues and international affairs for U of T News.