This story is featured in the spring 2021 issue of St. Thomas Engineer.

In our ongoing series of School of Engineering faculty learning retreats, supported by our partnership with the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), we have found that a meeting process called Open Space Technology (OST) reliably creates a space where courageous, provocative conversations about teaching and learning can take place. When using Open Space Technology, a group generates its own meeting agenda on the fly around a compelling, complex theme selected ahead of time. Instead of the chaos one might expect, the result is motivation and clarity, because the participants are raising and discussing the issues that concern or inspire them most directly.

There are only a few guidelines for the process that have evolved over time, but perhaps most significantly there is one “law” that is always present in an Open Space Technology gathering. The “Law of Two Feet” (or, alternately, the “Law of Mobility”) is a personal authorization and responsibility held by each member of the group: “If, during our time together, you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet (or other means of transportation) and go to some more productive place.”

The Open Space Technology sessions we have held at recent faculty learning retreats have spurred new initiatives in first-year engineering course design, interfacing with industry, summer and study abroad opportunities, models for undergraduate research, reducing students’ anxiety when working in groups, engagement with transfer students, and many more areas.

Leading an Open Space Technology meeting means opening and holding a space for critical, motivating, inclusive conversations to take place. Consider trying it the next time you have before you a real, active issue with a great deal of inherent complexity, where people have diverse viewpoints and passionate commitment, and where there is genuine urgency. And if you decide to dive in to try it, prepare to be surprised.

Dr. Doug Dunston is KEEN program coordinator in the School of Engineering.

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