Grand Challenges

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will host virtual ‘Grand Challenges’ summer workshops aimed at incorporating faculty, staff and student input on how to solve major societal issues, such as climate change or food insecurity.

Nathan Meier, assistant vice chancellor for research, said the idea of the virtual workshops originated as a result of the N150 Commission Report and the N2025 Strategic Plan. Rick Bevins, co-chair of the N2025 Strategic Plan and chair of the Department of Psychology, said the plan called for identifying and progressing on grand challenges, and the virtual workshops are the first step toward that. 

Meier said the virtual workshops are focused on utilizing campus resources and activities as well as talents of faculty, staff and students to address major challenges that face UNL’s campus, Nebraska, the nation and the world. 

The kickoff event for the workshops is Friday, June 5, and is open to all UNL faculty, staff and students. At the event, UNL leadership will share information about the goals of the workshops with the participants, according to the ‘Grand Challenges’ website. Michelle Popowitz, University of California, Los Angeles assistant vice chancellor for research, will attend the kickoff event on Friday to share knowledge and insight on how the grand challenges UNL identifies can help the university determine and focus on a set of common goals in order to achieve its N2025 Strategic Plan, according to the ‘Grand Challenges’ workshop website. 

Meier said the virtual workshops are a collaborative process where the campus community is encouraged to generate and share their ideas on what the greatest issues on campus are and how campus resources can be utilized to solve them.

Meier said the virtual workshops will progress through seven stages, each with their own workshop, beginning June 5 and continuing through mid-July.

These stages include determining what issues resonate with people on campus to come up with different ways of how to solve them, and they eventually lead to discussions on how to implement those solutions on campus.

Stage one comprises the kickoff event on June 5, which will introduce faculty, staff and students to the workshops; stage two occurs on June 9 and will include a virtual question and answer session aimed at discussing challenges, opportunities, topics and resources; stage three, which will begin on June 10, will include an online survey sent out to previous participants and UNL leaders in order to establish the criteria for the themes, according to the ‘Grand Challenges’ website.

During stage four on June 12, facilitators from Knowinnovation, an organization that assists events that focus on original and collaborative conversations, will generate ideas from the decided themes. 

Knowinnovation designed the platform through which the workshops will take place to imitate what generating ideas is like when people are face-to-face, according to Nebraska Today. Knowinnovation includes various workshops and events that focus on academics, research, science and creativity, according to its website

During stage five, which will occur on June 26, Knowinnovation facilitators will lead discussions on identified themes for final selection. Between June 26 and July 6, during stage six, reviews by external experts, steering committee and the executive leadership team, if needed, to give feedback on the criteria will be conducted via email or Zoom, according to the ‘Grand Challenges’ website.

The final stage during mid-July will be a virtual writing workshop where the final portfolio will be drafted. The final portfolio will consist of a list of resolutions UNL can consider implementing on campus, according to the ‘Grand Challenges’ website. 

“We want people to come together to brainstorm different ideas and ultimately really make a difference,” Meier said. “We want to help improve the human condition.”

Meier said having the workshops online resulted in some unexpected, positive outcomes, like having more than 300 people register for the kickoff event. This is a higher number than other, in-person, workshops from the past, according to Meier. He said more people can participate as well since they can request other times for virtual meetings or workshops if they are unavailable for the previously scheduled ones, so there’s more flexibility. 

Meier said the virtual workshops will provide a chance for faculty, staff and students to speak up on issues that they personally see and care about and take on leadership roles.

“I think what’s special about the virtual ‘Grand Challenges’ workshops is that people of all walks of life can come together and think bigger and beyond their own interests, experience or agenda,” Meier said.