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Empowering students to explore solutions to some of today’s most pressing issues around national security, natural disasters, energy and the environment.

Harriet Dunbar-Morris

6 min read

At Portsmouth we work in partnership to create excellent learning opportunities for our students. To provide graduate outcomes and opportunities to develop the Hallmarks of the Portsmouth Graduate, we have collaborated with the Common Mission Project (CMP UK) on a module which provides final-year undergraduate students with some real-life experience. 

Mission Driven Entrepreneurship: Hacking for Ministry of Defence (H4MoD) is a module where students in diverse courses across our School of Computing come together to think through and potentially solve some of today’s most pressing issues around national security, natural disasters, energy and the environment. They work with support from industry mentors and academic advisors, to validate original and genuine Ministry of Defence (MoD) problems with the aim of proposing viable solution ideas based on extensive evidence which they collect as mixed teams over the course of a teaching block. 

So, how does it work, and how can others get involved?

Student teams (nominally 4-6 students per team) work within a wider support network. This consists of MoD problem sponsors, industry mentors, military advisors, and Portsmouth staff in the role of academic advisors. Each student team is assigned exactly one problem.

CMP sources and curates all of the problems, providing partner universities with a set of real-world national security and defence problems. Each problem has one MoD problem sponsor, namely, the individual in the MoD who submits the problem. The independent mentors from industry and military advisors are additionally provided by CMP to support the students. There can also be a student peer mentor who has previously undertaken the module. CMP also provides training for the academic advisors together with copious resources for the module.

Combining different learning approaches

The approach used is predominantly the ‘flipped classroom’, where it is up to the student team to work with their problem sponsor to validate a problem and move towards a solution, calling upon the other sources of support as required. The methodology applied is the Lean Start-Up, where understanding the problem is the ultimate aim. Only by understanding the problem may they understand and then propose a possible solution. Progress in this is based centrally and wholly on conducting interviews with interested parties e.g. those directly experiencing the problem and who would benefit directly from its solving. 

As such the main vehicle for learning on the course is learning by doing which includes: applying lean start-up methodology; talking to the people who actually experience the problem; learning quickly from their mistake; corralling their weekly findings; and presenting these to the class. Teams will do all of this every week of the course.

There is also an aspect of the Blended and Connected Learning approach in the process; involving self-directed, independent learning by students, engaging with Moodle resources, arranging interviews, online or in-person, weekly lectures and talks by guest speakers, and the dissemination of additional materials and guidance through social media channels. The collaborative support network provides support via resources, and online and face-to-face mechanisms, in a flexible and collegiate style and manner. 

Regular meetings between academic advisors and CMP provide opportunities to review and consider flexible responses to team progress and student needs.

Getting out of the building

Combining the Flipped Classroom with the Lean Start-Up process, students begin with Beneficiary Discovery: endeavouring to truly understand and get to grips with the problem. Students source interviewees with an interest in solving the problem they have been assigned to tackle; chief amongst these will be their MoD problem sponsor, normally as the primary beneficiary (further beneficiaries are often discovered through the interview process).

Students must then obtain additional interviewees using a variety of sources: referrals (from any of the supporters, including the problem sponsor, and current interviewees); desktop research; LinkedIn; Google; university networks – whatever source they believe will yield knowledgeable people to talk to, and may have useful insight into the heart of the problem.

Problem knowledge becomes both greater and clearer over the weeks of continual investigation and further refinement. The Lean Start-Up process has an apt saying regarding this discovery process, ‘Getting Out of the Building’. This is where students are encouraged to do exactly that – from literally knocking on doors and visiting local companies who might have similar problems (an example might be in meeting recycling targets), through to visiting MoD sites (getting to know the sponsor’s problem in their own environment). Indeed CMP provides modest funding to help students in this pursuit (this year we had two teams visit MoD sites, e.g. HMS Queen Elizabeth). ‘Anything goes’ to gain more knowledge and insight.

Each week, student teams present their current understanding of the problem to-date; hypotheses they have made; their progress from the previous week; and the details of each individual team member’s contribution. Throughout, academic advisors are on-hand to provide ‘relentlessly direct’ constructive feedback, whilst also acting as benevolent provocateurs.

Empowering our students

To use a climbing metaphor, each student is provided with initial training: harnesses, a hard-hat and a rope. Footholds too. With this security provided, teams belay and support each other in their ascent. Then, as a team, they collectively decide upon the route they are taking from the foothills. A stage up, and often, one team member may suggest an alternate route. Secure as to where they are, as a team they try to probe hand and footholds and challenge routes. After exhaustive discovery and effort, a route is usually found and the ascent continues. The student team makes the journey together, and they are scaffolded by the collaborative teaching and support network to develop life skills, and both independent and deep learning.

Interviewing is central to understanding the problem, but it is important to note that the number of interviews is somewhat secondary to the knowledge gained (though still highly important). This is an excellent example of Experiential Learning; learning how to interact with highly important people with little time to spare, in a timely manner: preparing for the interviews; making notes of what is said; and digesting the whole, so as to continually enlighten the team as to their combined next steps.

Taking part in H4MoD is also an example of the students gaining some of our Hallmarks e.g. Generate ideas and develop creative solutions of benefit to society and the economy; Be able to locate, access and critically engage with information; Be able to communicate clearly and effectively; Be effective team players; and so on.

H4MoD was a chance to put into practice skills in project management, leadership, teamwork and business. Whilst you are thrown in at the deep end, there are a plethora of different mentors with you on the journey. The mentorship and guidance you receive allows you to fail fast and learn, pushing yourself beyond your own expectations.

Former Student, Hacking for Ministry of Defence module

In the University-wide Employment Group chaired by the Dean of Learning and Teaching we have endorsed this approach to providing students with real-life, experiential learning and gaining our graduate Hallmarks. We are working with course leaders who would like to add this module to their courses as a final-year undergraduate module or a postgraduate module, and we would like to explore whether we can implement this as a cross-institutional module, thereby creating truly mixed student teams. If you are interested, please get in touch.

We are presenting this approach at the annual AdvanceHE Teaching and Learning Conference 2023 if you would like to hear a little more.

Authors: Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris is Dean of Learning and Teaching and a Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Rachael Kelly is Executive Director at the Common Mission Project, and Dr Peet Morris has worked as an Academic Advisor on H4MoD.

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