Empowering Students as Agents of Change

Todd Brown, Andres Colubri, Pardis Sabeti, and Kian Sani
Innovation Showcase

In a world fixated on conventional measures of success, the call to empower students as agents of change resounds with urgency. The journey begins by shifting our educational paradigm, placing intrinsic factors like competence, authenticity, and connection at the forefront. As we embark on this transformative endeavor, the following principles delve into practical steps to enhance student engagement and motivation, amplify student voices, and foster collaborative experiences. We envision a realm where education transcends mere preparation for an undefined future and instead becomes a catalyst for students to actively shape the world they inhabit and contribute meaningfully to the present moment.

  • Prioritize enhancing student engagement and motivation over extrinsic rewards or metrics. As Denzel Washington once said, “I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul . . . you can’t take it with you.” Washington’s insight prompts us to reassess priorities—in education and in life more broadly. One way to motivate students to contribute, create, and influence positive change is to incorporate lower-stakes formative assessments that can catalyze creativity and engender lifelong learners into coursework. By nurturing and valuing intrinsic motivation, educators encourage students to become agents of change who value the journey of learning more than a predefined ranking of academic success.
  • More than empowering students to enjoy the process of learning is required; student voices must be genuinely heard and incorporated into their own learning. Educators who ensure that their lessons contain a degree of real-world significance make education relevant, creating opportunities for students to be change agents in the present moment. Doing so involves valuing students' perspectives and insights and fostering a sense of agency among them. By designing lessons that reflect real-time societal issues and incorporating student perspectives about them, educators transform students from passive recipients of information to proactive change agents, equipping them with the skills needed not just to navigate, but to influence the world they inhabit.
  • Placing collaboration at the core of the student experience is key. Recognizing that none of us single-handedly created products of value in the world, education becomes a pivotal opportunity for students to understand that more is possible in a collective. Educators foster a profound sense of purpose that extends beyond personal gain by encouraging students to identify and apply their individual talents within the context of a collective work product. Emphasizing collaboration colors the fabric of the learning experience and prepares students for a world in which interconnected skills and teamwork are paramount. In doing so, educators instill in students the value of working collectively toward common goals, reinforcing the idea that meaningful accomplishments often arise from the synergy of diverse talents and perspectives.

Operation Outbreak    

Today's challenges require capable individuals across various fields. Educating students about how they can contribute to an evolving world requires tangible, experiential, and project-based learning opportunities. Outbreak science is a multifaceted discipline in which educators can naturally encourage students to be positive agents of change. Infectious disease outbreaks are disruptive. Because outbreaks affect every corner of society, the field of outbreak science inspires cross-disciplinary learning.

We developed Operation Outbreak—years before the COVID-19 pandemic—with many of these principles in mind and present it here as just one of many programs that educators can incorporate into their courses to immerse students in experiential learning with real-world salience. An experiential learning platform, Operation Outbreak aims to cultivate engaged, educated, and empowered citizens and citizen-leaders in the realm of outbreak science to reduce the scope and scale of the societal impact of infectious disease outbreaks of all magnitudes. Our cornerstone experience is an in-person app-enabled simulation that spreads a fictional pathogen via Bluetooth across participating smartphones, emulating real-world interventions such as masks, vaccines, and diagnostic tests through the use of scannable QR codes.

As reified during the COVID-19 pandemic, outbreaks can be existential threats that require a whole-of-society response; hence, outbreak simulations offer students with diverse interests to come together and fight a common enemy: a circulating virtual pathogen. In our Level 2 (advanced) simulation, students can take on real-world roles such as biomedical researcher, government official, public health official, reporter, store clerk, banker, and general population, underscoring the multitude of roles society needs to combat an outbreak. To a greater degree than in many other problems of global consequence, infectious disease outbreaks can physically impact every individual and simultaneously provide us all with an opportunity to accelerate or dampen its trajectory measurably. In this sense, simulating how society responds to outbreaks provides an opportune lens through which to educate students in a way that cultivates a sense of agency.

The urgency to implement solutions is evident as outbreaks of various magnitudes will continue to disrupt education and society broadly. Students would benefit from having experiential project-based learning incorporated into their curricula. It is imperative to break free from outdated instructional methods. The time for change is now, and educators can guide students toward becoming proactive contributors to a future they can actively shape—here and now.

Operation Outbreak will be conducting simulations during the 2024 Innovations Conference.

Operation Outbreak is a multi-institution initiative at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (Sabeti Lab), the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School (Colubri Lab), and The Inspire Project led by the authors of this article. In the near future, the leadership team will be co-founding and growing into a new nucleating nonprofit entity while maintaining deep, active ties with their home research institutions.

Dr. Todd Brown is Head of Experience; Dr. Andres Colubri is Head of Research and Technology and Co-Head of Product; Dr. Pardis Sabeti is Executive Director and Head of Science Education; and Kian Sani is Program Manager, Head of Business Development, and Co-Head of Product for Operation Outbreak.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.