The Problem-Solving University

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Dr. Eric Skipper

The South Carolina Lowcountry, like regions around the world, confronts challenges related to human health, education, housing, sustainability, infrastructure, transportation, technology, and societal welfare in general. Issues specific to our region concern elder care, opioid abuse, cultural heritage preservation, sea level rise and more.

In a rapidly changing world, a synthesis of ideas is required to develop new ideas and solve complex problems. In the diverse expertise of their faculties, American universities are uniquely equipped to confront society's most complex problems locally, nationally and abroad.

Locally, much good work is already under way at USCB. Through research projects involving marine life acoustical behaviors, freshwater runoff, larval migration, and source typing from water samples, USCB's biologists are studying the impact of sea level rise on water quality and ecological shifts in the coastal waterways that are so critical to our economy and our way of life.

Through literacy outreach, tutoring, and the Teacher Cadet program, USCB's education department helps improve outcomes in rural schools. In order to address the shortage of regional health care workers, our nursing program has increased enrollment by developing an Honors on-ramp, maximizing cohort capacity, and establishing a memorandum of understanding with USC Salkehatchie to deliver our Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree to their students.

This summer, USCB will increase access to its Bluffton campus residence halls to help address a workforce-housing shortage on Hilton Head Island.

Through USCB's Students Connected initiative, professors mobilize students to address regional challenges related to public transportation, dietary health, and cultural heritage preservation. As a capstone project, business majors present strategy-consulting reports to select local companies.

On a broader scale, USCB's scientists are engaged in antibiotic research from shark microbe communities and the development of new compounds for the treatment of Chagas disease. Mathematicians at USCB model the propagation of diseases, notably the West Nile Virus and Leishmaniasis.

Still, there is much more to do. Chancellor Al Panu frequently cites the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' call for public comprehensive universities to be "stewards of place." To that end, a fundamental part of USCB's mission and Academic Master Plan (AMP) is to "enhance the quality of life" in the Lowcountry.

Such a stance requires our faculty to meet societal problems head-on, many of them having inherent complexities that extend beyond the scope of a single discipline or two. Accordingly, we have prioritized interdisciplinary collaboration in our AMP and have incentivized it via our internal grants processes. We encourage students to declare a minor, preferably in a field not related to their major, to encourage breadth of learning.

The benefit to students, most of whom participate in hands-on (experiential) learning of some type while at USCB, is exposure to interdisciplinary approaches and problem-solving. Most college graduates will change jobs, and even fields, frequently during their careers. Increasingly, employers are calling for workers who are adaptable, creative and entrepreneurial - all problem-solving traits.

In a high-tech, high-speed economy in which new jobs surface all the time (think data scientists, drone operators and intelligence engineers), universities must cultivate "learnability" in their graduates.

Today's students need a mindset broader than any single discipline can provide if they are to thrive in an ambiguous job market that is undergoing seismic changes. And the university needs such a mindset in order to solve problems and prepare students.

Be it disease, environmental hazards or humanitarian crises, our colleges and universities must make it their business to apply the strength of their intellectual capital to lead in problem-solving.

Eric Skipper, Ph.D. is provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at USCB

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