Agako Alod, Satu Määttänen & Eija Laitinen
Addressing the pressing economic, social and environmental challenges, as well as thriving in the professional sphere, requires competences beyond cognitive and technical skills (Filmer & Fox, 2014). OECD Learning Compass 2030 (2018) describes three transformative competences that students need in the 21st century: (1) creating new value by innovation, critical thinking and creativity, (2) reconciling tensions and dilemmas through coping with complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction, and (3) taking responsibility via reflection, respect and teamwork.
There is increasing doubt whether conventional teaching and learning methods through sole lecturing can develop these crucial 21st-century competences (Ding et al., 2014; Morgan, 2010). Problem-based learning (PBL) is considered an educational approach that responds to 21st-century educational needs. In PBL students learn by solving real-life problems in teams by applying theory into practice (Abbey et al., 2017). PBL is based on constructivist learning theory, which presumes that students learn through experience and reflection (Bada, 2015). PBL has been attributed to the development of holistic skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, leadership, conflict resolution, and self-directing (Abbey et al., 2017; Ding et al., 2014; Tan et al., 2014).
Through the student challenge concept, the AgriSCALE project has promoted and implemented PBL with promising results (Määttänen et al., 2022, 2023). Student challenges refer to courses, in which students learn by working in teams on cases commissioned by an external actor, such as a company or an NGO (Määttänen et al., 2022).
This article scrutinizes student challenges and the whole PBL concept from a student perspective. The article presents the experiences and thoughts of the main author, as well as his reflections on competences developed during a student challenge.
Student challenge on pre-cooked beans
As an M.Sc. student from Gulu University in Uganda, a partner of the AgriSCALE project, Mr. Agako Alod had the opportunity to participate in a student challenge.
At the start of the student challenges, Alod was assigned to a team, consisting of students from four universities in four countries. The team was commissioned to determine the potential markets and develop a business model for pre-cooked and dehydrated beans (hereafter, pre-cooked beans) for Zambian markets. The case commissioner was Trinity Super Nutrition (TSN), a Zambian company producing pre-cooked beans, which are made by cooking and drying beans and processing them into various forms such as dried beans, bean flour, bean noodles, and snacks.
The challenge took place at the University of Zambia in Lusaka, Zambia in October 2022. Students participating in the challenge had the opportunity to brainstorm and interact with the bean value-chain actors: producers, retailers, and consumers. The students collected data by interviewing 19 consumers in Chongwe, a small town 41 km from the capital, Lusaka, and 17 consumers in Lusaka. 78 percent of the respondents were female, and the rest were male.
The data showed that customers prepare raw beans by either soaking and then boiling or boiling directly. The cooking time of raw beans ranges from two to four hours, with almost all customers (> 94 %) using charcoal or firewood. As a comparison, pre-cooked beans take on average only 20 minutes to prepare. Pre-cooked beans were a new concept for most consumers, and they were not familiar with the preparation methods, safety, shelf life and affordability of the product. Yet, 94 percent of the interviewed customers were interested and willing to buy the product. In purchasing decisions, half of the respondents considered nutrition, one-third taste and ten percent price and familiarity.
Based on the interview findings, the student team built a model for the supply chain, identified potential markets and provided recommendations for TSN. Students suggested changing the product name from “pre-cooked dehydrated beans” to “cooked and dried beans” for simplicity. They also recommended having multiple package sizes (250 g, 1 kg and 5 kg) for market segmentation, and more appealing packages (Figure 1). In addition, the team proposed marketing channels (Figure 2) for the beans and designed an awareness-raising campaign about the benefits of the product.
Competences developed during the challenge
Attitudes and values
Alod observed a stark contrast between the student challenge and conventional classroom teaching. Unlike the typical generic and theoretical subjects often covered in traditional classes, the student challenge delved into real-world scenarios that could be readily applied to specific contexts. These tangible issues, the pragmatic framework, and the advantageousness of the collaborating company ignited Alod’s motivation.
Alod enjoyed working with students from different countries, cultures, and academic disciplines. He felt it taught him respect and appreciation of diversity in tackling problems and making decisions. It’s important to understand and take in different viewpoints, working methods and customs. This enables the true creation of sustainable solutions.
The student challenge developed skills in dealing with complex problems. It taught how to break down a complex task into smaller parts and brainstorm the ways of addressing them (Figure 3). Alod regarded the multicultural and multidisciplinary team to help shape and expand perception in dealing with challenges. Now he considers himself to be able to tackle challenges from different points of view.
However, he recommends allocating more time to the student challenges, a month or two, to allow students to understand the problem in-depth before starting the problem-solving.
During the challenge, Alod mentioned witnessing good leadership through the mentors who technically guided the students throughout the challenge. Through the experience, Alod perceived to learn to be caring and to objectively guide discussions and listen to people. The challenge taught to appreciate different opinions and allow individuals to present their points of view during discussions.
The famous saying by John Donne goes that “No man is an island”. The student challenge taught the skills to work as and within a team, including conflict resolution, management skills, consolidating and amalgamating ideas from team members and objectively making decisions.
The challenge provided opportunities to participate in presentations and discussions within and among teams, and with value-chain actors. These interactions improved presentation, and other communication skills.
Due to the hands-on approach, the student challenge enabled and developed innovativity and creativity. For example, the interviews with value-chain actors helped the team to dig out what has already been done, and what has and has not worked. This in turn helps to avoid duplication of previous solutions, but to find new and better ones that are both feasible and sustainable.
Life-long learning skills
In today’s world, challenges and development are ever-evolving. Thus, there is a crucial need for teaching and learning methods that provide students with the competences to tackle new emerging problems, as well as to utilize new innovations. This requires life-long learning, i.e. ability and willingness for continuous professional and personal development, and related skills, such as adaptability, creativity, and information acquiring, interpreting and applying (Laal & Salamati, 2012; Peat et al., 2005). This is the essence of the PBL student challenge concept.
The student challenge was an astounding learning experience for its participant, Mr. Alod. It provided hands-on experience with challenges faced by agro-entrepreneurs and created a platform for the application of the “classroom theory” to remedying practical-requiring problems. Moreover, it allowed to explore opportunities to exercise competencies in practice and further develop them. PBL activates entrepreneurial culture in learners since they can notice that business challenges can be conquered. We strongly recommend the PBLs and student challenge models be intensified and promoted in the learning institutions for students to become competent in tackling arising, future challenges.
Agako Alod, M.Sc. student in Food Security and Community Nutrition from Gulu University, Uganda. He works as a Graduate Assistant at the department of Food Science and Postharvest technology, Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, Gulu University, Uganda.
Satu Määttänen, M.Sc. in Agricultural Sciences and M.Sc. in Environmental Science and Policy from the University of Helsinki. She works as a Research Assistant at Häme University of Applied Sciences in the HAMK Bio Research Unit, Finland.
Eija Laitinen, Ph.D. in Adult Education, Principal Research Scientist in HAMK Bio Research Unit. She is the AgriSCALE and PBL-BioAfrica Project Coordinator and leads the HAMK Africa Team.
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