Bright minds in good hands

Selena Griffith, UNSW Engineering’s new Scientia Experience Manager, is helping students build entrepreneurial skills and a love of hands-on learning.

Selena Griffith

UNSW Engineering Scientia Experience Manager Selena Griffith. Photo: Grant Turner/Mediakoo

As far as student compliments go, it would be hard to think of a better one than this: “Come to my graduation because your courses have had the greatest impact on my career decisions.”

The request extended to Selena Griffith, UNSW Engineering’s new Scientia Experience Manager, came from a student she had worked with in the Enactus program, a global student-led organisation that uses entrepreneurial action to transform lives. UNSW has one of the largest Enactus teams in Australia.

“I was proud to have been asked,” she says, of the invitation.

Empowering students to realise their potential is a passion for Griffith, who came to Engineering from UNSW Art & Design, to develop and implement initiatives to enhance the student experience.

“This is a very exciting time because we are effectively redesigning and redefining what teaching means at a university level,” she says.

“There is a renewed focus on the student experience and the University is considering a promotion track that allows academics to be acknowledged for, and concentrate on, their teaching.”

The role has brought Griffith full circle – she originally studied at UNSW’s Kensington campus as an undergraduate in the first intake of the Industrial Design program.

I believe every student coming through university needs to have some kind of real project experience – a cross-disciplinary collaborative learning opportunity that will inspire them in their future careers.

Griffith says that degree was groundbreaking because it combined elements from a number of disciplines, including design, commerce and engineering, when most programs were very discipline specific.

“It inspired us to be lifelong learners because we understood the value of connecting disciplines.”

This formative experience, combined with a background working in design for big brands such as Quiksilver and establishing her own start-up businesses, has inspired her approach to teaching.

“I believe every student coming through university needs to have some kind of real project experience – a cross-disciplinary collaborative learning opportunity that will inspire them in their future careers,” she says.      

Griffith has long been occupied by the quest to solve broader, more complex problems as part of teams of individuals with diverse interests and experience.

While working at Art & Design (from 2005 to 2016) she developed a course called Nexus, where students worked on industry-based projects or created their own, working with chosen collaborators.

“Students would come up with really amazing ideas but not have the skill sets to make them happen so the course allowed them over 12 weeks to experiment, take risks, be innovative and be assessed not on the outcome, but on the way they reflected on their management of the project.

“If it failed, that was a true experience of reality, and a useful lesson they were not penalised for,” Griffith says.

And it was the desire to create experiential learning that impelled Griffith to devise the ‘Island Innovation Lab’ course that gathers students from across UNSW to learn as a team and from each other.

“Instead of just working on theoretical case studies, I thought, why can’t we be the case study using our intellectual and practical skills?” she explains.

The courses involved replacing the classroom at Kensington with the Asia Pacific Islands of Vanuatu, Singapore, Kiribati and Palau. The initiative was supported through scholarships from the Federal Government’s New Colombo Plan.

“Instead of just reading a paper about the challenges of climate change and its effects on the region, we were sitting in the sand with the people of Kiribati, talking about the lack of water and changed weather patterns, actually experiencing those effects at the same time,” Griffith recalls.

The innovation labs encourage students to use the knowledge they have learned in their courses, but also be informed by their research, peers and shared on-the-ground experience to develop solutions to the challenges at hand.

This leadership and mentorship of students in the development of social enterprise was recently recognised at the Enactus National Championships where Griffith was awarded ‘Most Outstanding Faculty Adviser’.

“I was very honoured. The students said they valued my approach to developing their leadership skills and finding opportunities for them to connect with industry.”

She says helping students form start-ups and “make things” encourages them to become inventors and creators, to solve complex challenges and to build connections.

Sydney’s winter festival Vivid was a good example. “We put a call out for students and ended up with two projects. Both were put in very prominent locations and received a huge amount of media.

Selena with Vivid students

Selena Griffith (L) with the Vivid student team.

“It was a really great experience for the students – helping build their confidence and communication skills, as well as practical skills and internship opportunities. And it has led to deeper insights into how we could scale that experience for larger class teaching scenarios.”

In her new role, Griffith intends to make sure all engineering students are engaged in hands-on projects that develop innovation and entrepreneurial skills.

She also hopes to inspire students to participate in extra-curricular student-led enterprises such as Vivid, UNSW’s solar car racing team, Sunswift, and the Robocup robot soccer team, or in clubs such as Create or Enactus.

In many ways it’s a return to the age-old practice of learning through getting your hands ‘dirty’.

“We need to go back to our roots, to find the essence of the University motto Scientia Manu et Mente: ‘knowledge from hands and minds’.”