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Pines to Teach ‘Grand Challenges’ Course

Freshmen Invited to Connect as They Tackle Tough Issues of Our Time

By Lauren Brown

President Pines on a Zoom call in his office

Photo by John T. Consoli

The eight-week “Grand Challenges of Our Time” course will welcome 80 freshmen to explore four critical issues: COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change and voting access.

Freshmen at the University of Maryland are wading through the most unconventional semester in generations, whether learning online or living in a single dorm room while the world wrestles with a pandemic, social unrest and an increasingly fraught presidential election.

Now 80 of them will confront those issues in an unconventional setting: a course taught by the university’s new president.  

Starting tomorrow, Darryll J. Pines will lead the eight-week virtual course “Grand Challenges of Our Time,” focused on four of them: COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change and voting access. The first class taught by a UMD president in more than 20 years, it will bring together first-year students to examine these topics in their historical and current contexts and to share their own perspectives and stories in hopes of effecting change. 

“I want our students to know that they can indeed come up with solutions to the grand challenges of our time,” Pines said.

Pines, who in his previous role as dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering taught a “grand challenges” course focused on that field, wanted to broaden it after becoming president in July. 

Like in that last class, he’ll continue to bring in experts from across campus and around the nation with unique perspectives on societal issues as part of his Wednesday lectures. Several of these talks have been branded as Presidential Distinguished Forums and will be open to the full campus community. (See sidebar.)

In the second weekly meeting of the class, students will be broken into sections of eight to 10 to explore the issues more deeply, each with the help of two co-instructors. 

Students might compare a propaganda film from World War II promoting the need for internment camps with actor George Takei’s account of his experience living in one, said Lisa Kiely Ph.D. ’97, assistant dean for undergraduate studies and one of the course’s creators. She imagines a lively yet intimate conversation in which the students consider accounts from all angles, and how their own experiences shape their analysis.

“We’re looking at how you develop comfort and skills to negotiate discussions with people with differing views about contemporary issues,” she said. 

Kiely, Jazmin Pichardo M.Ed. ’16, assistant director of diversity training and education in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and Mira Azarm ’01, innovation instigator in the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship were on the committee shaping the course. The pair will meet weekly with the group of co-instructors, who all volunteered for the position in hopes of making the freshmen, who may feel disengaged or isolated this semester, feel welcome and connected.

“The opportunity to connect meaningfully with students has brought a lot of people into this process,” Azarm said. 

Shelvia English Ph.D. ’19, assistant director of the Incentive Awards Program, is one of the co-instructors. She said as a Black woman and a Christian, she wants to show students that the campus is both diverse and dynamic, and that different voices on difficult topics are welcome. 

“It’s hard to have a dialogue in social media and news outlets, when there’s no one right or wrong answer,” she said. “This is an important way to encourage students to talk to each other about the tough things.”

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