Northwestern University has adopted an approach designed to yield better engineers. It has promise, as this approach aligns with how the Bible says we build better believers.
For the last decade, the engineering school at Northwestern University has taken an unusual approach to education. They have freshmen try to problems without clear solutions.1 Teams of four students are given $100. They’re given a problem. In one case, a team was tasked to design a way for a stroke survivor to crochet with one hand.
In another instance, a team met with a patient with a spinal-cord injury. He wanted his walker-leg gliders to slide easily and quietly but still provide stability. Preeti Samraj, a physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute, led the team but admitted he didn’t actually know the solution. Nor did the students, who confessed that, at the beginning, a solution didn’t seem possible. “This is more difficult than we thought.”
The course, Design Thinking and Communication, is difficult because Northwestern attracts straight A students. They strive to be perfect. They feel like they’ve never made any mistakes. Joseph Holtgreive, assistant dean of undergraduate engineering, says this often produces isolation, anxiety, and depression. Add arrogance to the list.
The antidote is having teams of freshmen persist and struggle through some really challenging problems where there can be many solutions and in some cases no solutions at all. The real goal is to teach important life skills applicable to anyone. These include collaboration, resilience and, when students fail, humility.
Interestingly, Jesus prescribed a similar process for building better believers. He predicted similar outcomes as well, including collaboration and humility. Read Luke 17:5-10. The disciples ask for increased faith—to become better believers. Good request. Most churches would urge you to join a small group or Bible study. Jesus doesn’t.
“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat?’” In scripture, increased faith is often equated with being fed. The disciples want to be fed. But Jesus upends their request: You guys are coming to me seeking to be fed. It doesn’t work that way. What would you say if you had servants and they came to you to be fed?
“Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink?’ Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”
It’s easy to miss Jesus’ point. In Jeremiah 29:7, the Jews are told to seek the flourishing of others, in this case, the Babylonians. “As they flourish, so shall you.” Translation: Faith increases to the degree to which you love your neighbor—seek their flourishing. This is love. Loving God and others—the Great Command—means seeking the flourishing of your neighbor before yourself. They flourish—you flourish. They eat—you eat.
I’ve observed firsthand how this works. For over a decade, my wife Kathy has worked as a reading specialist in a Title 1 school. Mostly Hispanic. She has persisted and struggled through a series of seemingly overwhelming challenges. Raising reading scores is hard work. As she has brought flourishing to students, I’ve watched her faith grow.
I’ve also observed how Kathy and her colleagues are not at risk of becoming arrogant. Raising and sustaining reading levels requires many overlapping solutions—books in the home, parents that read, parents that read to their kids, good nutrition, and so on. It’s arduous, achingly hard work with many, many sad setbacks. It’s tough.
The gospel is the renewal of everything (Colossians 1:18). Christians are to build better everything. Do you work at the National Security Agency (NSA)? Make it a better place to work. Do you work in finance? Make it better, improving on the current individualistic enterprise that it is. I know two men seeking to reframe private equity. They want to reframe it so that it brings flourishing to all. That’s the gospel.
My sense is many in the faith community lecture about the renewal of everything but few labor at it in the filthy trenches. The result is two hallmarks—a lack of humility and collaboration (McKinsey.com: “What social-sector leaders need to succeed”). In building better engineers, Northwestern reminds us of an ancient way to make better believers. Solve real hard problems in the real world. Problems with no easy solution. The outcomes will include collaboration, resilience and, when believers fail, humility.
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1 Sue Shellenbarger, “The Power of Unsolvable Problems” The Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2016.