Sociology professor Sandra Enos uses SolutionsU to …

engage students in critical and careful analysis of challenges that face our local, national and global communities.

Sandra Enos has been using solutions journalism stories in her sociology courses at Bryant University since 2010, when the first official solutions journalism story was published in the New York Times. Over the years, she has hand-picked solutions journalism stories to illustrate the lifelong impact of childhood trauma, the promise of safe injection site in addressing substance abuse epidemics, and the role of farmers’ market in improving the quality of food available to SNAP recipients.

With a database of thousands of solutions journalism stories searchable by topic and strategy, she says that SolutionsU has vastly extended the learning opportunities for her students. “So many of the assignments I give my students are improved and enhanced with this resource.”

For example, In Community Engagement and Service-Learning, an introductory Sociology course, Sandra “gives” groups of three students $500,000 to start a family foundation and tasks them with establishing a mission and action plan for distributing the funds. The students consult SolutionsU for program ideas and examples of what is working, in much the same way that a real foundation officer would.

Instead of students bouncing all over Google and finding ill-conceived programs, or instead of assuming that no work is being done in areas about which they are passionate, they can find real solutions and decide much more effectively how they want to spend their money. This leads to important discussions about how members of a community can address the most serious service gaps, not just the popular ones.

Part of her intention with assignments like these, she says, is to show her students the many different ways they can contribute to solving a problem they care about.

“I really challenge my students to find an issue that is most important to them, and then to explore how different organizations are working to solve the problem,” she says. “I also want them to consider the role they see themselves playing in the future.”

Sandra left a career in the nonprofit sector to pursue teaching in 1998, and it is a decision she almost came to regret. “I realized that little of our standard curriculum was directed to educating students about solving problems in a critical thoughtful way. If it hadn’t been for the service learning movement, I would have been a very different sort of professor.”

This was before the social entrepreneurship wave hit college campuses. In 2012, Sandra became the first coordinator of the social entrepreneurship concentration at Bryant, and in 2015, she wrote a book exploring the intersections between the two disciplines: Service-Learning and Social Entrepreneurship in Higher Education: A Pedagogy of Social Change (Palgrave MacMillan).

Sandra also works at the intersection of civic engagement and social entrepreneurship. In March, she is co-leading a workshop on SolutionsU and civic engagement at the national Campus Compact conference.

We want to do more than just encourage students to volunteer. Civic engagement is also about voting, deliberative democracy, conscious consumption, effective philanthropy, community organizing, public policy work, and much more. The more we can help students understand that there are many ways to make positive social impact, the more likely they are to be engaged and activated.

At the end of each semester, Sandra asks her students to reflect on what they have learned. One of her students — a senior — wrote something recently that she says underscores her belief about what is missing in higher education.

The student wrote that she was shocked to learn that there are such sharp income inequalities in the United States, and such distinctive differences in educational opportunities. She didn’t understand how she could have made it almost through college without learning about these and other social challenges.

“Why haven’t I learned about this before?” she wrote. “Did people think that I wouldn’t care? I am ashamed about having been in the dark for so long.”

The ideal university, Sandra says, would teach social change across the curriculum. All students should be exposed to the challenges we face as a society, she says, and all students should learn about solutions.

Students also need to approach problem-solving with humility, she says. There is a lot to learn about the complexity of problem solving. Students should be oriented to becoming part of a problem-solving community not imagining that they have the answers.

The lessons students take away from Solutions U are that it takes multiple perspectives, careful and critical framing, diverse talents and an array of skills to solve social problems. I want our students to engage with these challenges not only with hope but also with the knowledge that we have a lot to learn from each other. Solutions U makes that more accessible.

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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