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Stanford summer institute invites grad students to explore, experience, expand

"As the thesis adviser for many PhD students, I consistently see students emerge from the summer institute with expanded horizons and a new energy about their own research," said John Boothroyd, associate vice provost for graduate education.

L.A. Cicero Grad students with lecturer Daniel Klein / L.A. Cicero

Samantha Thomas and Megan Henry, students in the Graduate School of Education, act out a scenario given by lecturer Daniel Klein in his summer institute course, 'The Improvisor's Mindset.'

Two weeks before fall classes begin and graduate students must focus on their own disciplines, Stanford invites them to "step outside their comfort zones" and into a free, weeklong course – no prerequisites required – on a subject outside their field.

At this year's Stanford Graduate Summer Institute, Sept. 9-13, new and continuing graduate students could choose among 10 courses ranging from Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems taught by Patrick Archie, a lecturer in the School of Earth Sciences and director of the Stanford Educational Farm Program, to Public Policy Negotiation and Decision-Making, taught by Janet Martinez, director of the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program at Stanford Law School.

"We want to lower the barriers between disciplines, departments and schools," said Helen Doyle, director of educational programs in the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, which sponsors the annual weeklong program.

"We have a genuine desire to encourage graduate students to stretch themselves academically and step outside their comfort zones. We want them to get the most out of Stanford while they're here," she said.

This year, 325 graduate students took courses, including 100 who signed up for Energy@Stanford and SLAC: Energy Research for the 21st Century. In addition to meeting "energy faculty rock stars" from all seven schools, the students visited local energy companies in Silicon Valley and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory's state-of-the art Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory and Linac Coherent Light Source facilities.

Last Tuesday morning, four dozen graduate students sat around six tables in the atrium of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, talking quietly during a break in Designing the Professional: Addressing the Question "Once I get my degree, how do I get a life?"

It was the second day of the five-day class, which attracted master's and doctoral students from six Stanford schools – Business, Earth Sciences, Education, Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, and Medicine – and 21 departments.

Dave Evans, a lecturer in the Stanford Design Program, energized the group by conducting the students in a symphony of "waves," asking them to stand, throw their arms in the air and either say "woo" or "whoa." It was an exercise that filled the room with silly sounds, smiles and laughter – and finally, applause.

Then he turned over the stage to Kyle Williams (MFA Design '12), who gave an overview of the next exercise.

"You're going to think of a problem," Williams said. "Accept the problem – remember, you can't solve a problem you're not willing to have. Accept that this is where you are and this is the problem you're going to work on."

Williams then displayed five "design mindsets" on the screen behind him.

"Adopt a design mindset," he said. "We'll demonstrate how you can apply these to a situation where you're stuck. Then you're going to get into triads and collaborate on making progress on your problem."

Each student was given three minutes to identify problems related to their professional/vocational pursuits, prompted by these questions:

  • I feel stuck when I think of __________.
  • I don't know what to do about __________.
  • I would love to change __________.

"Think of something you'd like to move forward on, where you can't quite get any momentum going, or you're not sure what to do next, or you're feeling a little bit stuck," he said.

Williams demonstrated the process with fellow lecturer Eugene Korsunskiy (MFA Design '12).

Standing in the front of the room, they acted out a problem-solving conversation using some of the design mindset approaches on the screen: bias toward action, radical collaboration, curiosity, reframing, and mindfulness of purpose.

Then the graduate students broke into groups of three. Soon, animated conversations filled the atrium of the d.school.

Across campus, other graduate students were taking classes on improvisational theater, digital storytelling for researchers, globalization, development and AIDS in African history, communicating research effectively, incorporating entrepreneurship and innovation into graduate studies, and using emotional intelligence to enhance productivity.

John Boothroyd, the associate vice provost for graduate education who oversees the summer graduate institute with Doyle, taught courses in the program for four years.

"It's an amazing opportunity for students to engage with colleagues from outside their usual circle, explore new material and learn new skills," said Boothroyd, who is a professor of microbiology and immunology.

"As the thesis adviser for many PhD students, I consistently see students emerge from the summer institute with expanded horizons and a new energy about their own research. And as a summer institute instructor, I've learned different ways of looking at a topic from humanists, engineers and others."