Powerful lessons from expanded Fellows Program

The Writing Fellows Program has been a tremendous peer-to-peer resource for Brown students and faculty since 1982. With the addition of Problem-Solving Fellows, the impact is expanding into STEM departments and beyond.

Jacob Jackson '20 came to Brown determined to pursue a career in physics. Aside from a few computer science classes here and there, his first five semesters were dominated by that track. He knew what career he wanted to pursue: why waste time taking humanities classes?

That was until he got his dream internship. After his first taste of real-world research experience in physics, Jackson began to question whether he was on the right career path. Looking to reorient his trajectory, he turned back to his love of teaching and signed up for the Problem-Solving Fellows Program. He hoped it would improve his teaching skills. He didn't bank on it changing how he viewed his own education.

“We were learning all these skills that I had never practiced and were completely underdeveloped,” he says. “Before this course, I hadn't realized that by neglecting a liberal arts education, I had weakened myself as a student and a person. I owed it to myself to develop those areas and skills.”

By helping their peers develop problem-solving skills, our fellows are simultaneously strengthening their own capacities to adapt to new situations, challenge assumptions, collaborate in teams, and ultimately apply their knowledge to build lives of usefulness and reputation beyond Brown.

Rashid Zia '01 Dean of the College

Building a framework

Launched by the Brown Learning Collaborative in 2017-18, the Problem-Solving Fellows Program is the first expansion of the Fellows Program since the introduction of the Writing Fellows in 1982. Geared towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) departments, the program helps students learn—and practice—a myriad of problem-solving strategies and methods.

“Teaching others how to understand and solve unfamiliar problems is essential to leadership in all domains,”  says Dean of the College Rashid Zia '01. “By helping their peers develop problem-solving skills, our fellows are simultaneously strengthening their own capacities to adapt to new situations, challenge assumptions, collaborate in teams, and ultimately apply their knowledge to build lives of usefulness and reputation beyond Brown.”

The main component of the program is the course, “Theory and Practice of Problem Solving,” where the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning not only prepares students to become more effective problem solvers, but also to improve their skills as peer teachers. Concurrently or after completing the course, fellows work as undergraduate teaching assistants in courses across the curriculum.

A diversity of thought

Despite the focus on STEM departments, the program puts a sizable emphasis on the human element of problem solving. Students are taking a deep dive into learning theory and exploring how people absorb, process, and retain knowledge.

“We encounter problems daily because we are constantly making decisions, like choosing what to eat for breakfast or deciding how to spend your weekend,” says Christina Smith, assistant director for undergraduate instructional development at the Sheridan Center, who developed and teaches the Problem-Solving Fellows course. “We're helping fellows understand the why behind the decisions they make as students, educators, and problem solvers. Being reflective, understanding your identity, and incorporating cues from your environment are all skills that can be applied to other areas of their lives outside the classroom.”

The value of this understanding extends beyond the bounds of just STEM courses. Problem-Solving Fellows have partnered with faculty in courses across the curriculum in biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, engineering, French, math, and neuroscience. With the fellows as a resource, the hope is that students will feel more empowered to explore courses outside their comfort zone.

“It really drove home for me that diversity is important in building a team and in solving problems,” says Katie Wu '19, who was among the first cohort of fellows. “Diversity helps create a learning space that's more inclusive—where people, each with their own experiences and personal values, are welcomed and encouraged to share their ideas.”

For Jackson, 2019 is a year all about exploring new learning experiences. He took a gap semester this spring to teach at a start-up in Hanoi, Vietnam. When he returns in the fall, he's planning to take advantage of what the Open Curriculum has to offer. Writing. Public speaking, Sociology. Maybe a foreign language.

“My transcript is going to look ridiculous when I graduate,” he says. “I’m really excited about it.”


(March 2019)