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After Challenges Online 2021, we caught up with some of the students from the winning projects to hear more about their experiences throughout the week. Have a listen to the podcast here!
CaST focuses on how universities can work more effectively and inclusively within their city communities by providing students with opportunities to work on local societal challenges. Grand Challenges and Challenges Online are proud to feature as case studies in CaST's Compendemium of 'Engaged Learning in Europe'. Find out more here.
Hear more about Lisa's thoughts on the programme in this blog post.
Last year, our students pioneered some incredible outputs across Challenges Week. Ranging from interactive storybooks about climate change to a proposal for a Black Lives Matter Action Day, to social media campaigns about food sustainability and apps to help improve access to mental health resources at university, our students faced some of the biggest global challenges head-on and innovated solutions to these urgent problems.
All of our Challenges topics link to the United Nation's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, such as committing to take urgent climate action (13) and promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies (16).
Challenges Online is a fun, student-led project week with a 94% student satisfaction rate, where we provide a supportive environment for you to explore the topics that you are passionate about in your own way.
Want to know more? Find out about past student experiences below.
It really sets you up for the world of work, where there will be people from all areas collaborating on one goal...
"The best thing about Grand Challenges for me was working with people from such a broad range of disciplines - my group comprised Physics to English to Psychology to Medical Sciences - and this really enables different perspectives to solve the problem as everyone has a unique skillset. It really sets you up for the world of work, where there will be people from all areas collaborating on one goal.
I also loved the fact you had a tangible output at the end of the week which really made you feel empowered to make a difference on important matters, where we often feel like we have no voice. Global challenges like Climate Change and Mental Health seem so big and out of control, that as one person in society, you feel like you can’t make a change. But that is what is so amazing about Grand Challenges because you get to work with like-minded people to plan, design and present your idea from concept into fruition, which can often be continued into the future after the week is over.
I can’t recommend Grand Challenges enough - where else do you get a whole week dedicated to working solely on something you are passionate about?"
Grand Challenges pushed me to understand different viewpoints due to the interdisciplinary nature of the teamwork...
"Taking part in Grand Challenges was without a doubt pivotal to my personal development as a student and future healthcare professional. The week taught me so much about teamwork and project development, as well as giving me a platform to convey my ideas about climate change education into actions. For Grand Challenges 2019, my group comprising of various degrees such as business, geography and modern language students were passionate around carbon footprint and how we could convey the importance of it to the younger generation. For our output, we made a boardgame based around this idea. My role in the team was helping to bring together all the ideas we brainstormed into the design of the board game, which allowed me to develop my graphic design skills immensely, alongside getting into the habit of incorporating feedback throughout the whole process.
The process involved with Grand Challenges pushed me to understand different viewpoints due to the interdisciplinary nature of the teamwork, and to convey my knowledge and ideas from a medical perspective into an easily digestible manner for non-specialists. These communication skills are invaluable in the modern-day workplace, with so many businesses and companies using multidisciplinary teams to spark greater creativity and innovation. Grand Challenges also developed my confidence not only with presenting, but also my own self-confidence to speak up and put forward ideas in group projects; something which I struggled with when growing up. The Grand Challenges experience has developed my confidence in all aspects of life, from leading teaching to lower years in my degree, to speaking up about issues around sustainable transport infrastructure to University management."
I believe that this scheme is a true asset to Exeter and a programme that all students should take part in during their time at university...
"A highlight to my summer was the week I took part in Challenges Online 2020. It was an incredibly engaging and coordinated project, organised as a replacement to the typical Grand Challenges format run by the university. It was a brilliant opportunity to stretch myself outside of degree studies and immerse myself into a global challenge that faces the world today. Especially due to having online lectures the previous term, it was a welcomed opportunity to meet new people and work as part of a team again!
As part of the project week, I was part of a group looking into challenges facing the world today surrounding food and the environment. My teammates and I designed a project looking into the growing world of flexitarian diets and how we could provide a solution for students looking to incorporate more sustainable ingredients into their diet. We were extremely well supported throughout the week by our dedicated group facilitator, who ensured that we were working well as a team.
Since completing Challenges Online, I have been able to apply the skills I developed in many aspects of my life, particularly my online learning skillset. With a growing online working environment, learning how to use many different communicative platforms confidently and efficiently is a key skill that future employers will look for. Taking part in Challenges Online developed my technological skillset above that which I have learnt through academic learning online, due to it requiring me to create as well as manage group calls and documents. I believe that this scheme is a true asset to Exeter and a programme that all students should take part in during their time at university."
It is a challenging but rewarding week that I would wholeheartedly recommend to any students considering it...
"After lockdown had cancelled whatever summer plans that I had made, I decided to sign up to Challenges Online on a whim and without any expectations. It ended up being a great experience and I could not have been happier with how the week went. You are given a lot of freedom in what you want to work on and how you want to present it, whilst also having constant guidance and support from academics and facilitators who help you create the best project possible.
Working in an interdisciplinary team was a real highlight. Seeing how people from different academic backgrounds had very different ways of viewing and tackling problems really helped develop my team working skills, especially in an online environment. These are skills I will be able to use in group projects and work in the future.
The week was adapted really well to work online. It all ran very smoothly, and many groups took advantage of the platform with my own group choosing to make a website for our project. I was even able to take an optional tutorial in app design and it was great being able to develop entirely new skills.
Overall, it is a challenging but rewarding week that I would wholeheartedly recommend to any students considering it. It is a great way to meet new people and develop new skills whilst also working a project you can be passionate about."
I have found myself discussing Challenges Online in various interviews as a way to demonstrate digital teamwork and project planning...
"I took part in Challenges Online in 2020 working on the Loneliness and Mental Health Challenge and cannot recommend the experience enough! The skills I developed during the week have proved incredibly valuable to me this year when applying for graduate jobs. I have found myself discussing Challenges Online in various interviews as a way to demonstrate digital teamwork and project planning, as well as enthusiasm and an interest in tackling a specific social issue.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the week, as it was the first time Challenges had run online, but I was so impressed by how professional and well thought-out every element of the experience was. I worked with a group of students from various subject areas, so everyone had their own skills to bring to the table and the project felt like a totally different experience to group work I had previously completed at university. I also found it really enjoyable to work on a project outside of the constraints and pressures of an assessed piece of university work.
Challenges Online was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in, and that also provided me with valuable, relevant digital skills I have used ever since during group work at university and during interviews with potential employers. I highly recommend other students to take part!"
The skills I have gained have aided in job applications and in securing an industrial placement...
“Grand Challenges provided me with an excellent platform to develop both professionally and personally. Having limited work experience prior to this, I was quite nervous when I started the week. However, this was not a problem as we were all well supported by our challenge supervisors and skills workshops organised by the university. I greatly improved my teamwork and communication skills through working in an interdisciplinary team of students who each brought something unique to our project – an innovative scheme to combat the global ocean plastics problem by means of a circular economy.
I also was able to further develop my time management and organisation skills to complete our project outputs by set deadlines. The week allowed me to meet and work with great people, which expanded my social networks and created a fun memorable experience. Grand Challenges exposed me to a variety of aspects which became extremely useful in the subsequent years of my degree, such as when working on group assignments and presentations. The skills I have gained have aided in job applications and in securing an industrial placement, of which the 9-5 exposure during Grand Challenges proved to be valuable in helping me settle into the new workplace environment. Participating in Grand Challenges is an opportunity I will never forget as part of my university experience and I would highly recommend it to any student!”
The best part of Challenges Online was not only figuring out how I needed to change to better our environment but learning that I could help others do the same...
"When I signed up for Challenges Online at the start of 2020, it was called Grand Challenges and Covid-19 had not yet impacted the world so gravely. I decided to participate in the programme figuring I’d want something stimulating and fun to do to pass the time at the beginning of summer. When Challenges Online began, the pandemic was in full force and I assumed that I would not be able to gain as much from the programme online as I would have in person. The next week proved me wrong in so many ways.
By participating in the Food for Thought (now called Future Food) challenge, I learnt so much about worldwide food systems and how my eating habits impact the people around me. To this day I apply my newfound knowledge of worldwide dietary customs and their impact on the environment to my everyday life. The best part of Challenges Online was not only figuring out how I needed to change to better our environment but learning that I could help others do the same.
I started Challenges Online worried that it would be impossible to interact with others effectively online but in that week, I found myself communicating freely and working passionately as part of a team towards our common goal. I was able to work with amazing people to think up creative and innovative ways to tackle issues we were concerned about.
Challenges Online gives you the opportunity to hone your existing skills and develop new ones that will benefit you now and in the future. Should you choose to take part, you will have the opportunity to learn more about the challenges we face in Climate and Environment Emergency, Fake News, Social Inequality, Future Food or Planetary Health. Even better, you will discover that you are capable of contributing so much to the world around you by finding inventive, future solutions to current world problems."
Challenges Online really feels like an opportunity to make change, whether that means on a small scale within the university or on a larger scale.
Challenges Online was a lifesaver for me last summer. Having signed up for the in-person Grand Challenges, I was apprehensive about the new online programme, but they couldn’t have done a better job in adapting it to the circumstances. The balance of group and individual work gave us the freedom to work on our projects ourselves and still keep in contact with our team and the programme, with support readily available if we needed it. Despite being scattered around the country, our team were able to work together on creating a database of wellbeing support for the Loneliness and Mental Health Challenge in the form of a website whilst also improving our personal wellbeing through interacting with the team. With the programme being online, it made it easier for us to split up the work to do individually before meeting each day to discuss it, giving each of us a defined role to take away from the challenge.
Above all, Challenges Online really feels like an opportunity to make change, whether that means on a small scale within the university or on a larger scale. I know I learnt so much about what support services are available to students through the research we did as a team and the online format really pushes you to learn new ways of using technology which is more useful now than ever. I am proud of what we achieved as a team and I am so glad I signed up to Challenges Online.
Ethan O'Gorman Davies
Challenges Online has shaped much of my university experience and I cannot recommend it enough to students.
I took part in the Fighting Fake News Challenge last year, and it was by far the most rewarding thing that I have spent my summer doing. Not only did it bring likeminded people together, but it allowed me to learn more about a topic that I may not have been able to learn about in my degree. From this, students on this project and I decided to create the Exeter Media Watch society that has a focus on continuing the work we did during this week. This is how much the Challenges Online week influenced us and pushed us to want to make a difference.
During the week, the Challenges team were enthusiastic and helpful. From experts in their field, to passionate students wanting to give back, there was not one member of the Challenges team who was not supportive of each project.
The week has made me friends and has been the reason for my involvement in the Exeter Media Watch society. It is for these reasons why I can safely say that Challenges Online has shaped much of my university experience and I cannot recommend it enough to students.
Challenges Online & Employability Skills: Why you need soft skills and how you can develop them in a week
By Poppy Osborne (Challenges Online 2020 Participant)
After completing Challenges Online last year, the first time it ran, I knew I’d had a really fantastic week getting to know lots of new people and working on a fun and innovative project to tackle important issues. What I didn’t know on immediate completion of the project was how my ‘soft’ skills had developed and why this is paramount when applying for grad level internships and jobs.
Soft skills refers to people skills, social skills, and personal development. These soft skills can include emotional intelligence, assertiveness, negotiation skills and flexibility in working. The opposite of soft skills, hard or technical skills, relate directly to your specialism and are learned abilities such as ability to speak foreign language, your degree and computer programming. If you want to be a French au pair, naturally you will need the correct hard skills (perhaps a degree in French, a DBS check and experience working with children) but the soft skills can be just as important.
Soft skills will affect how you are perceived at interview, how you interact with other candidates, your attitude when faced with a hard question and your ability to show emotional intelligence during testing activities. It is often just as important to practice and develop these skills as it is the hard skills too. Often during interviews at graduate level, most of the questions relate to soft skills (“Tell me about a time when you showed emotional intelligence?”, “Explain how you have developed your time management?”).
"Challenges Online is a really fun week where you can meet new and different people, work on important global goals and...it gives you a really solid example of a time when you engaged in teamwork, negotiation and self-motivation."
So, you know they are important . . . and you know you need them? But don’t you already have them? I mean you’ve got this far, and you’ve only missed one university deadline (and it was in first year so does it even count?). So why do you need to keep developing them?
Graduate employers love recent examples, and they like to see that you’re engaging in activities that push you and challenge your thinking. Most importantly, we never finish developing our soft skills; they continue to evolve as we succeed and fail in social and personal situations. We continue learning how best to negotiate as we continue doing it. The more often you engage in activities which naturally teach you more soft skills, the better you will become at using them!
Ok, but I’m sure I do it all the time during University work? Do I really need to do something extra?
No . . . but you’re missing out if you don’t. Challenges Online is a really fun week where you can meet new and different people, work on important global goals and develop these skills. Employers usually have bold mission statements (google them before your interview!), and these often relate to charitable goals or align the company with larger missions, such as sustainability. Some companies pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050 or some pledge to donate food to impoverished countries. By doing Challenges Online, you can demonstrate that you also care about charitable endeavors and that you are therefore really aligned with the company!
Moreover, it gives you a really solid example of a time when you engaged in teamwork, negotiation and self-motivation. These skills are naturally developed during the team working process of Challenges Online and will definitely help you in your graduate job or internship. Within my graduate interview, I spoke in depth about my motivations and my team working skills and then used them extensively in the workplace during my internship.
- Negotiation - Discussing large client accounts and negotiating discounts from suppliers.
- Motivation - Getting up every morning at 7am requires a LOT of motivation.
- Emotional Intelligence - Noticing when a colleague needs a quick break or when the client is getting frustrated with something.
- Assertiveness - As a grad or intern, it’s important to show assertiveness and show your value when sometimes you can be overlooked. It’s key to standing out and demonstrating the value you bring to the organisation.
- Flexibility - During my internship interview, they gave us 50 minutes to prepare our pitch and then after 35 minutes they opened the door and said sorry guys we are early and our next meeting has been brought forward so we need you to pitch to us now! Flexibility was the most important skill here and learning to ‘roll with the punches’ is vital in the corporate world (especially in consulting!).
All these skills that I’ve used in my internship were part of Challenges Online, as we had to negotiate with one another to decide on our final idea, motivate ourselves to get up early and work on our project (sometimes into the evening), and emotional intelligence is vital when looking at such sensitive issues such as poverty and mental health so this was developed too.
I could go on and on about what I learned and why it’s important, but the easiest thing is for you to just trust me. Enroll on Challenges Online and see for yourself. Trust me, you won’t regret it!