Public policy professor Betsy Schmidt uses SolutionsU to …

show students how overwhelmingly large social problems can be broken down into manageable-sized solutions.

Betsy Schmidt learned about SolutionsU in the spring of 2017, just as she was deciding which public policy courses to teach the next fall. She says she decided right away that solutions journalism stories would be a good fit for her freshmen seminar at UMass Amherst. But she wasn’t so sure about her more advanced courses.

“I was skeptical as to whether journalism stories could be useful in an upper division course,” she says. Once she learned that all the stories in the database are vetted for the four criteria of solutions journalism, she decided to give the resources a try.

Solutions journalism stories focus in depth on a response to a problem and on the effectiveness of that response, present available evidence of results, discuss the limitations of the approach, and provide insights that others can use.

Betsy says that when her students read a solutions journalism story about a particular social challenge before they read an academic journal article on the same issue, it made the information in the journal article more accessible and meaningful.

“These stories gave the students context to then read the more serious public policy research,” she says.

In her first-year seminar, Betsy asked her students to explore successful public policies from various countries around the world. Each week the students discussed a specific policy — how it works, its strengths and weaknesses, whether it is transferable to other countries, and whether they would include this policy in a utopian community they might create.

Before each class, all the students listened to the My Perfect Country BBC podcast. Twice each semester, each student also found two solutions journalism stories related to the topic using the SolutionsU database, and then reported on their findings to the class.

Each week there would be a few students who were experts compared to their classmates, which really helped the class discussion. An added benefit is that the shy students who might otherwise have been hesitant to participate in classroom discussion gained confidence in this “expert” role. They were excited to bring this additional, interesting information to class and share it with their peers. Using solutions journalism stories definitely enhanced the discussion.

You can see Betsy’s syllabus here, on the SolutionsU Teaching Resources page.

In her upper division public policy course, Betsy had her students analyze public policies from the perspective of a successful community. She created two assignments using SolutionsU. At the beginning of the semester, the students came up with their own definition of a “successful” community.

To help them find ideas, they read stories on SolutionsU about how organizations have worked to strengthen their communities. Later in the semester, when the students were analyzing cash stipends as a public policy, each student identified two solutions journalism stories about building economic prosperity, one about a project that provides cash stipends as part of its strategy, and another that pursues a more traditional approach.

You can see both assignments — What Defines a Successful Community? and Cash Stipend or Personal Responsibility on the Teaching Resources page of SolutionsU.

Betsy also had her students identify an innovative solution to a particular social problem that interested them, and then write two papers, one arguing against this solution and another arguing for it in a way that could convince an opponent of the solution. Some of her students used SolutionsU to identify their issue, and others didn’t. The difference between the two groups, Betsy says, convinced her that SolutionsU is as useful in identifying a problem, as it is for identifying solutions. The narrowing lens of solutions, she says, helps break complex social issues into more manageable pieces.

For example, students interested in universal healthcare might search for “solutions to the health insurance crisis” on Google. Such a search would return articles on the importance of preventative care, the benefits of a single-payer systems, and free-market solutions to drive down health insurance premiums — all high-level solutions to an enormously complex issue. By searching the same topic on SolutionsU, the students would find stories on local businesses funding rural health clinics, an organization that is delivering healthcare to the homeless on the street, and a unique partnership between a drug company and a doctor’s office to reduce prescription drug costs.

These stories break apart a very broad and complex social issue into more manageable pieces, says Betsy, making it easier for students to identify an issue they are interested in exploring further — in this case, rural healthcare delivery or healthcare for the homeless.

“The students who used SolutionsU to identify their topic came up with something manageable, and the ones who didn’t wound up having to narrow their focus later in the semester.” Next year, she says, she’ll require that her students identify their topics using SolutionsU.

Betsy surveys her students throughout the semester, so she knows that exposing her students to these stories leaves at least some of them feeling more positive about social change. As one student wrote: “I have high hopes now for how I can change the world someday. This course made me a better person.”

Are you an educator who wants your students to learn about how people around the world are working to solve society’s toughest challenges? Visit SolutionsU for collections of stories with discussion questions, assignments, syllabi and teaching modules.

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