Vice Chancellor’s Challenge 2017, a Reflective Report

The VCC competition is a new scheme that recruits teams of students to work across disciplines on issues relating to global challenge. In 2017, the topic was Sustainable Cities. Student teams were supported by staff from across the university, including our Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir David Eastwood. LANS students were finalists in 2017.

By Natacha Askovic (Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, fourth year student)

Why did I immediately feel that a topic on Sustainability was one for me?

The year I spent in Sweden as an exchange student [the LANS Year Abroad] has contributed a lot to changing my mind-set, to making me grow up as an individual and a student. Taking courses in Sustainability (Sustainability: Greening the Economy – lessons from Scandinavia) and Environmental Governance have greatly contributed to shaping my knowledge on global environmental issues and the various theories underlying their understanding, as well as the different solutions used/suggested to limit their effect and/or deal with the situation we have brought ourselves in.

I can say now with hindsight that I had already developed, even before Sweden, strong interests in topics related to ecology on one side, and social studies on the other. It is also mostly the reason why I decided to go to Sweden, even though at the time of applications, I did not use these terms to refer to my decision to pursuing my exchange studies in Lund; it is only after studying there and being part of a very sustainable and environmentally-friendly community that I was able to truly phrase what made me want to go there in the first place – and what actually attracts me about Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular.

At the end of the day, what I have known for years now is that I want to make sure the world that surrounds me is a better place – and that I never leave it worse off on a daily basis! – and throughout my experience at University, I have been led to consider SUSTAINABILITY as the framework in which I would develop both myself as an individual and my future career.

I found out about the Vice Chancellor at the beginning of my second semester abroad, when I was already more aware of my appeal for these themes, and I was truly driven by the topic of Sustainable Cities and Communities, simply because I felt that I was part of a Sustainable Community living in a Sustainable (Student) City – among a lot of other things, I learnt how to recycle EVERYTHING in Sweden, using literally the 8 different bins we had in our flat!

“Could you have the answer to a global challenge”: the LANS approach to the Challenge

Now the VCC is over, I strongly believe that we stood out from the rest of the groups, as LANS students, with regard to our approach. Our team was made up of five members, each of us having very interdisciplinary profiles, and this was both very beneficial and challenging in the first phase of research. In my case, my academic areas of interests are mainly centred around economics and international relations. In the specific given framework of Sustainability, I was immediately attracted to the questions related to Green Economy, Circular Economy and green political thoughts (Ecosocialism, Bioenvironmentalist ideas, the institutionalists approach to global environmental issues). Considering this is a topic that I am truly fond of, I enjoyed doing a lot of research on top of my already solid background on the questions we raised as a team regarding how we could tackle the challenge.

Quickly after we had our team constituted, we were faced with a few difficulties, difficulties that I feel we managed to successfully overcome. I believe that the first and probably main challenge for us while we were still abroad was to settle on a topic/project and this was for several reasons.

The first one was common to all of the teams and related to how vague the instructions were. The expectations on the significance of our project as a solution were also very unclear [this was the first time the scheme had run, and the expectations evolved as the project developed]. Secondly, as LANS students, we all have very interdisciplinary profiles already, with majors from various colleges, (and thus also different research methods, academic perspectives etc.) and we were asked to work on an already very interdisciplinary and very broad topic, which I think did not necessarily mean that it was harder for us, but rather we would approach the question differently from the very early stages compared to the other teams. Last but not least, we were all abroad making physical meetings impossible and also faced the difficulty of finding suitable times for Skype calls as we were in different time zones (Sweden, South Korea, Germany and Australia).

For all of these various reasons, it seemed hard to settle on a topic. When we started running out of time, it was decided that every single member should come up with a solution rather than an issue relating to sustainability, and from there find the problem(s) it relates to/solves, thus making the project both innovative and interesting and having an actual impact. We would then all vote and so Urban Gardens was the solution we settled on.

I offered to work on the idea of closed loops, a project that would involve circular process – having in mind the research on circular economies very promoted in Sweden and at the EU level – since circular/closed processes and cycles, or loop models, could be applied in a lot of different areas (academic, industrial, manufacturing, waste management, and actually urban gardens too!). Not only do I believe this bit of input influenced a lot our research and project as well, but also that it is absolutely essential to the concept of sustainability, since it could resolve the paradox that resides in the growing interest in environmental issues on the one hand, and the importance granted to economic objectives (growth) in the current world on the other hand.

BUGGs working on their platform: the long-term implications

As I learnt throughout my module on the Greening of the Economy, the concept of ‘sustainability’ does not only refer to environmental impacts and practices, but rather relies on three pillars, i.e. the economy, the society and the environment. Very quickly, I understood that the social one was at the heart of sustainability since societies as a whole are included within the economy, which in turn is part of the environment that surrounds us – indeed this is HOW we have decided to organise our societies on a global scale. We hence felt that if we (and when I say ‘we’, I mean anyone who has any interest in sustainability), could work within this pillar and help people develop a sense of connection with the environment while at the same improving social cohesion, empowering communities by teaching them how to be more self sufficient together, this was both life-changing for so many people here, around us in Birmingham, and at the same time a great step in the pursuit of sustainable development.

Urban gardens – or community local food growing – would help build both social cohesion that is so essential for all the individuals for so many obvious reasons – among which well-being, personal development, more (equal) opportunities… We pictured it as a process relating to the grass roots, or bottom-up approach: by shifting back the focus to local action, this could trigger realization of the importance of say more environmental friendly practices by the individuals; it could also impact on consumption habits, nutrition-related awareness and so on. Shifting the focus back to the local level means defining an improved quality of life and thus creating visions of sustainable lifestyles. This in turn leads to the need to work on designing, supporting and governing more sustainable cities where people have a good life and hence shows the key role that innovation and clean technology have in this greening economy.

Then, developments at the business and innovation level are expected to also lead to increased awareness and involvement at the governance level, with effective strategic planning and integration of policy instruments. This is the reason why we believe that working on the social pillar at our level is the best way to trigger this long-term process while still getting these very powerful short-term benefits, essentially related to food security, increased social cohesion, development of important skills etc.

To recap, I would say that it was not so much that we consider environmental or economic aspects of sustainability as less important than the social ones, but rather that as students asked to work on sustainability, the most REALISTIC and EFFECTIVE approach to Sustainable Communities and Cities was to start with a focus on the social sphere of the concept. Thus, Birmingham Urban Gardening Group (BUGG).

The benefits of participating?

I think that the most rewarding aspect of being part of this team and what made me so proud of us was literally knowing how feasible and concrete all of this is. We did not just come up with a utopian project relying on years of deep research, or huge finances. It was thought through to be as practical and achievable as if it was to be done tomorrow. We exactly know how we would proceed with our online platform, serving as a link to all the community gardens and people wanting to get involved in the offline community it would serve. We know we would go to schools and talk to children, and show them what they can do. We know this would bring families together to urban gardens, and create a strong connection to the environment and awareness on food practices, as well as help them all develop strong skills while meeting people they would not get to know otherwise, and so bringing communities together.

The final year is challenging enough but at the end of the day, I study because I believe in myself and what I can achieve through my studies. Studying is not just about satisfying my parents or making sure I earn enough money, it’s about the impact we can have as individuals, it’s about our beliefs and how we use our skills, our knowledge, our strengths and weaknesses to satisfy our values.

As written in the Brundtland Report (1987), ‘humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ and ‘technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth’. With the aim of developing a sustainable project for the VCC, we manage to reach policy advisors, to meet community gardens managers but also communities who already are part of it, and to offer a solution to tackling food poverty (a topic that’s close to my heart, and that I am focusing on for my LANS dissertation too!) and the strong inequalities, and reduce the lack of social cohesion in the area of Birmingham.

In conclusion

Despite the challenges raised here, I think that the VCC highlighted how much we have benefited from our course: team work (for the core modules) + interdisciplinary modules + stimulating debates thanks to the our very personal perspectives. I think that our project was also about making compromises for each of us, both very obviously on the topic and maybe less on the entire expectations related to the project. I think that it is easy to see how much I have learnt on the concept of sustainability though this work, but also on the development of a project of applied sustainability in relatively long-term. A topic on Sustainable Cities and Communities is of genuine global importance, and I already had a taste of its practicality while doing my placement this summer at the Economic Department/French Embassy in Croatia and working on the state and potential of the Energy sector; I was glad to work on the VCC because it meant creating from scratch something more concrete and achievable, which also added to my experience to the field.

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First year trip to Coniston, June 2016 by Martha Hutchinson

The Trip

Two weeks ago, the first year students of LANS went on a four day residential trip to the Raymond Priestly Centre on the shore of Lake Coniston. From hiking to high ropes, we took part in various activities designed to help us improve our teamwork and leadership skills – and were also very enjoyable!

 

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The good weather held for the majority of the week, meaning that evenings could be spent outside on the field and by the lake, or going to the local pub in the village of Coniston.

Monday, 6th June

After a 7am start in the North Gate Carpark, we set off to the Lake District on what looked to be a lovely day. Five and a half hours later, this proved to be correct as we arrived at the centre to blue skies. After lunch, it was outside to do some ‘ice-breaking activities’. These contests ranged from passing all members of the team through a hoop in 4 seconds, to racing a ball up and down the hill in sections of gutter; and by the end of the afternoon, all of the teams seemed to be really enjoying themselves.

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One activity involved passing a bean bag between two people stood on either side of an increasingly wide gap – this was attempted with varying amounts of success.

Tuesday, 7th June

On the second day, the teams split up to complete a circuit of activities individually. My group (Team 4), were on land for the morning. We had a rotation of activities: crate stacking, high ropes and low ropes, all of which were very entertaining! I think my favourite would have to be the high ropes, as it was a brilliant way for us all to work together and help each other through. Then, there was a fantastic lunch (quiche) before we set off for an afternoon of canoeing. While many canoes were off to a slightly rocky start, by the time we stopped for ice cream at the Bluebird café it was generally going swimmingly (not literally).

Photo 3

Our first task was to build a tower of crates for two team members to stand on to reach a whistle in the trees – thank you Jeeves for coming up with the brickwork pattern

Wednesday, 8th June

Our third day was marked on the schedule as ‘activity day’, and so we had only a small idea of what to expect – other than we would need a packed lunch. Over the course of the day, we completed an orienteering trail, a logic puzzle, a hike and a canoe journey, gaining points for various correct answers during the day. While we were all exhausted by the end, the day was a success – I had a great time, and the views were amazing (even if we had to walk up a rather steep hill to get to them)! Plus, we succeeded in winning the prize at the end – ice cream!

Photo 4

While canoeing on both days was enjoyable, it was a bit more difficult on the Wednesday as the Lake became rather choppy in the afternoon! (Picture from Tuesday)

Thursday, 9th June

 

On our final day, we were able to choose our morning activity (mountain biking, sailing, gorge scrambling or kayaking). Having chosen sailing, my group spent the morning back out on the lake, which was great fun, and a perfect way to end the trip – especially the water fight with the group in kayaks! After a final lunch and a clean of the centre, it was back on the coach for the drive back to Birmingham. The trip was a resounding success, with everyone enjoying themselves, and it was awesome to be able to get to know everyone on the course. I hope that next year’s group will have as fantastic a time.

Photo 5

On the final evening, we made a fire in the centre’s fire pit, around which we drank hot chocolate and attempted to roast a doughnut.

Thank you

 

Finally, on behalf of LAS Year 1, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone whose hard work made this trip a success. In Birmingham, I would like to say a special thank you to Ruth German, Ben Kotzee and Stewart Brown for organising the trip. I would also like to thank Ben and Stewart for accompanying us. Finally, I would like to say a massive thank you to all the staff at the Raymond Priestly Centre, who worked tirelessly to make sure we had a great time – everything was amazing, from the food, to the activities, and even to the atmosphere of the centre! The trip could not have gone ahead without any of you – thank you very much!

 

Photo 6

Also, a personal thank you from me to Ben, Miriam and Lorna for allowing me to use their photos for this post!

 

 

 

A day in the life of the LANS Operations Manager

I’m a newbie in the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences team – I started as LANS Operations Manager in November 2015.  So far so good … it’s a great team to work with and a really interesting concept as an undergraduate degree.  It’s the sort of degree I would have loved myself!  And, despite the work in progress of the new library, the view is a vast improvement on the brick wall and pigeon mess I looked out at in my old job!

 

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View from the ERI

My days are very variable but at the moment because it’s a new role there is a big backlog of paperwork to catch up on – for example programme specification documents for the Natural Sciences exit degree, module specification documents for a new and exciting 4th year Entrepreneurship module, a collaboration agreement with UpRising (who will provide campaigning training for the 2nd year core module later this semester), a job description for a Birmingham Undergraduate Internship to join the LANS team …etc.  I’m nearly there with all that and hopefully we will be able to share more information with the student body soon. I’m also getting to grips with the budget and doing lots of financial planning to make sure that the day-to-day stuff, the improvements, and the extra-curricular trips and events are all covered.

I’ve also spent the last few months having lots of meetings with the other departments and services across the university to understand their processes (for example, timetabling, study abroad, planning, finance) and to talk about the unique and usually chal
lenging requirements of the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme.  Some of my focus over the next few months will be to work with these departments to improve our interaction with them and therefore the outcomes for our students.  For example, if we can put together a new Birmingham Liberal Arts package and marketing to attract overseas students to come and spend a year or semester abroad within Liberal Arts and Sciences at UoB, then  we can open up more spaces for UoB students to go abroad which will help with the placements for LAS students.

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Dr Anna Brown, LANS Operations Manager

This is the first role I’ve had in the university dealing directly with undergraduate students and it’s great to be reminded why we all work here – Chamberlain’s radical vision of a place of learning for students from all backgrounds.  Ruth (LANS Programme Manager) and I have been hosting a series of ‘feedback lunches’– for me this has been the first chance to get to know our students (they’re a lovely bunch!) as well as seeking feedback on the experiences of Liberal Arts and Sciences students.  Feedback is important to us, and we will listen and, wherever we can, act on it.

Following student suggestions last term we have reconfigured the LANS hub area to give individual study carrels with PCs as well as a smaller group meeting area in the ‘glass box’.  A further five PCs are on order and we are working with IT to get printer access.  More recent suggestions for pinboards and maybe artwork for the pink wall will hopefully complete the new look and feel of the space.  But we’d like students to keep the suggestions coming!

I’m really glad I took on this role – steep learning curve and challenges not withstanding – and I look forward to meeting more students and to feeling like I’m really making a difference to the experience of a Liberal Arts and Sciences degree at Birmingham.

Dr Anna Brown, LANS Operations Manager

 

How to set up a new student society… One Liberal Arts and Sciences student’s experience

An Italian Society for the University:

An insight into the process and motives which helped make a vision become reality.

A blog entry by the Chair, Federico Stillitano (Liberal Arts and Sciences, 2nd year).

If you were to ask any of my friends back in Italy, coming to study in Birmingham was quite an odd decision given that I am Italian. Indeed, most Italians choose London as their university (or work) destination.

Unsurprisingly, this intensive migration has led London to become the sixth city by number of Italian inhabitants, surpassing cities like Florence, Venice, Verona and Parma. It might be London’s hectic nature, its uncompromising development, or the cocktail of culture which the city has to offer that might trigger the desire to live there. And although these characteristics greatly fascinate me, they have instead led me to choose a vast, green, campus-based university for my undergraduate years of study, knowing that I would then have the rest of my life to live and work in a massive global metropolis.

Having made my decision I considered the fact that, like me, other Italians might also deviate from the apparent norm, and instead decide to go to other cities to study (one of these being Brum). I therefore joined the “University of Birmingham 2014-2015 Freshers” Facebook group, filtered its 5000 or so members by nationality, inputted Italy as native country, which resulted in a list of UoB Italian students, just like me.

Once arrived at University, in between frenzied freshers’ parties and attempting to prepare productively my timetables and courses, I looked around the Freshers’ Society Fair for an Italian society stand, with no success. I in fact learnt that there had been a departmental Italian society in previous years, however it had just been closed. I therefore decided to make it my mission to re-start, and successfully run, a new, non-departmental society open to everyone, with the only requirement being an interest in Italian culture and customs.

My first task was to fill in a society proposal; a 20 or so page document that asks the proposer to highlight the aims and philosophy of the proposed society. Considering that I had a clear idea of what I wanted the society to be, it wasn’t too challenging. In addition, I had to appoint a committee, which again wasn’t too hard, as at this stage I had met a few Italians and knew others from back home. Furthermore, to prove the society would target a proportion of students, I had to collect 20 signatures of people that would potentially become members and favoured the idea of an Italian society.

After having collected, completed and sent the proposal and signatures to the Guild of Students, we were asked to pitch the society at a meeting (where again we stated the aims and philosophy of the group and why it should be officially recognised). Needless to say, the meeting was a success: within a month of having come to University I had managed to complete my first goal! Nevertheless I was aware that the hard part was yet to come: to recruit members and effectively run the society.

I therefore went back to the list of Italians I had found on Facebook and individually messaged each person, pitching some small scale events we organised (like “aperitifs” and “meet&greets”), with the hope they would come, enjoy it and finally join. Together with the committee we started a Facebook page, spammed countless other Facebook pages, and managed to achieve a steady growth of likes. Indeed, at the time of writing the page has 182 likes. We chose the page as the main media with which we would communicate updates and future events to our members. Moreover, as a committee we decided we would never fail to pitch the society to any person which would show an interest to Italy during any conversation.

This proved to be significantly effective, nevertheless we wanted to expand our membership base more rapidly and efficiently to organise bigger scale events. We therefore planned events targeted to any interest: cooking lessons, film screenings, football matches, Italian lessons and meals at home or in restaurants, with the scope of attracting the widest possible audience. And although we managed to organise a few of these events and did achieve a visible linear growth in participation, the majority of our ideas either clashed with other events, assignments or exams in the third term.

This served us as a very valuable lesson, as it caused us to think of a number of procedures that would help us organise events more resourcefully next year. For instance, at our AGM we decided to appoint PR and Logistics managers. The former, being English, would demonstrate that the society is not limited to native Italians, but participation of “foreign” people is in fact encouraged, whilst the latter would help us effectively organise transportation and supplies for any event. Alongside fundraising and events managers, secretary, treasurer and chair, these new roles would be allocated specific tasks, in order to tackle every issue specifically and capably.

With hindsight, although we could have done some things differently and maybe thought of solutions and methods of expanding our number of members in a more efficient way, we did manage to achieve a significant membership base and run the brand new society rather smoothly.

I once read a quote attributed to American writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie, which stated: “People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing”. As a response I tend to find myself following this viewpoint in most things I do, as I believe that if you do not expect short or long term happiness, there is little reason to pursue any activity. Therefore while it might sound relatively irrelevant, my third and final aim was essentially to have fun setting up and managing the society: an aim which I can proudly say to have achieved!

The whole process, although at times quite tedious due to the amount of bureaucracy and paper-work, was great fun: I learnt several important skills and really enjoyed all of the events, especially knowing that lots of hard work and determination led to something gratifying. As a matter of fact, I urge anyone to start a society, join a club, play for a sports team or just generally get involved: at the end of the day what you bring home from university, apart from what you learn in your degree, is what you do in your spare time. I cannot stress how important this is!
Now I can proudly say that choosing Birmingham over London and relentlessly pursuing a goal could not have worked out better! Shame on you, London…

First-Year trip to the Raymond Priestley Centre, Coniston, June 2015

First year students on the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme took part in our annual adventurous training week at Coniston in the Lake District from Monday 8 to Thursday 11 June 2015.

The University of Birmingham is lucky to have its very own outdoor activity centre, the Raymond Priestley Centre, on the western shore of Coniston Water. The Centre had its beginnings in the annual summer camps that the University of Birmingham set up at Coniston Water in the post-war years, and grew to comprise permanent accommodation and facilities. Today, the Raymond Priestley Centre offers students and staff the opportunity to take part in team-development and leadership courses, field-studies courses and training in sports and pursuits like sailing, canoeing, orienteering and climbing.

The centre is named after Professor Sir Raymond Priestley (1886 – 1974) who was geologist on Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1907–9 and Scott’s ill-fated expedition in 1910–13. He later became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham (1938 to 1952) and was a strong supporter of the educational benefit of adventure and exploration.

Our groIMG_0219up left Birmingham early (if not so bright) on Monday morning and arrived at the Priestley Centre in time for lunch. After a briefing and introduction to the centre, it was time for the first activities, with an afternoon devoted to problem-solving and team-working exercises at the centre’s ingenious obstacle courses. Students had to scratch their heads to solve problems such as crossing a ‘gorge’ using only team work and three short planks, finding their way blindfolded, and passing eight team members through a ‘spider’s web’ without touching.

 All good fun and, along the way, everyone learned a bit more about communicating and what role they best play in teams. Everyone was tired on Monday night, but we got a camp fire going and chatted until dark. On Tuesday morning we went canoeing (a first time for some) and held a raft building competition. Two of the rafts made it around the course safely… and the third group swam out in some style. 20150609_114507_HDR20150609_114325 The afternoon saw us take on the centre’s dedicated ‘high ropes’ and ‘low ropes’ courses. Teamwork was crucial in getting everyone safely around the high ropes course (pretty high) and keeping them out of the mud besetting the low ropes course. IMG_0266

On the Wednesday, students took part in an all day project, working in teams, which involved map reading and orienteering, raft building and canoeing. The tasks required individual ingenuity and teamwork, plus the ability to acknowledge that different members of the group had different strengths which would each come into play in different situations. They spent the late afternoon working on their group reflective presentations for the Thursday morning — everyone took this seriously, and one group in particular put considerable creative effort into planning their presentation (set to the music of Bohemian Rhapsody). In the evening many of them went to the pub but all were back in the Centre in good time and in a reasonable state to return to work on Thursday morning!

On the Thursday morning, students were surprised at having one more physical task to perform. In their groups they were each issued with a length of guttering and a tennis ball and had to manoeuvre the ball down the hill towards the lake without it dropping to the ground. Two of the three groups did this ok, one group did it eventually – with a little help from their friends as it were. Again it was a task about teamwork, leadership and esprit de corps…but maybe 8.30am was a little early in the day for some of the students. After the presentations the groups cleaned up their quarters and headed up the hill to catch the coach back to Birmingham. IMG_0231IMG_0222 After the trip, all were agreed that Coniston was brilliant. Students came to know one another much better and say they felt much closer.

Ben Kotzee and Stewart Brown