Sink-or-swim challenges for young scholars

Southampton challenges young scholars to tackle global concerns. Matthew Reisz reports

July 25, 2013

Bringing young scholars together to produce for just eight weeks a book to help coastal cities respond to climate change may seem an ambitious task. Yet this is the aim of the latest intensive “collegium” at the University of Southampton which started last week.

Now in its third year, the collegium is the brainchild of Ajit Shenoi, director of the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute, who managed to secure funding for it from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

The institute has drawn on its contacts with universities and companies around the world to find 25 promising “scholars working in industry or academe”, typically in their mid to late twenties, who have studied at least to master’s level.

Potential future leaders are chosen on the basis of a CV, referees’ recommendations and a 500-word essay on their aspirations for industry over the next 20 years. Groups of five then investigate a major problem in marine research, formulate a solution and produce a book on the issue, all within eight weeks.

Although the central focus is on engineering, Professor Shenoi stressed that “we don’t specify disciplines. In real life, we need people from many different backgrounds – lawyers, accountants, social scientists and psychologists – to solve ‘engineering problems’ through working in teams.

“No one taking part in the collegium has brought a knowledge of the subject beyond general reading. The first cohort in 2011 looked at ‘carbon capture and sequestration in ocean space’, last year’s focused on ‘seabed exploitation’, although we didn’t define what either of those words meant. It’s an advantage if they don’t know anything – they come with an open mind,” he said.

The programme starts with a number of modules taught by academics and experts from industry, giving delegates the opportunity to learn about topics such as the design process, emerging technologies, regulatory and commercial issues, and engineering systems integration.

This year’s collegium – for which the university is partnered by Southampton City Council – examines the need for “coastal eco-cities”. A predicted temperature rise of 4ºC by the end of the century could have a disastrous impact on the billions of people who live within 200km of a coast.

Participants are expected to quantify the environmental challenge and develop their understanding of the geopolitical and legal contexts before proposing an integrated engineering system and assessing the economic and logistical implications.

After six weeks, they will produce a book of 30,000-40,000 words on their project, which will be rapidly peer-reviewed and made available in week eight. Based on his experience over the past two years, Professor Shenoi believes that such publications are likely to lead to important “suggestions for further research” and perhaps even “international initiatives to take some of them up”.

Lloyd’s Register is now a major collaborator with the University of Southampton, with which it is working on the development of a major new campus to house an international centre for maritime research, as well as most of Lloyd’s operations when it moves out of London.

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