Great Problems Seminars

The Great Problem Seminars (GPS) give first-year students and faculty the opportunity to step outside their disciplines to solve problems focused on themes of global importance, culminating in annual Poster Presentation Days that celebrate students’ innovative research. While tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems, students who choose these classes will develop skills, knowledge and confidence valuable not only for the rest of their college career, but also for life.

 Alumni of the GPS give more information about their experience in the video below and credit the course for:

GPS Can Change Our World

 Unlike most work in courses, these projects live onused by people all over the world with over 65,000 downloads to date!

A world map displaying all of the locations where the GPS projects are used.

GPS Course Offering

GPS courses are a two-term linked project experience taught by two faculty members.  In the first term you will explore many facets of a great problem and then, in the second, work in a team with support of faculty to produce a solution, and show it off to the whole campus!  Note that each course carries different credit. Click here to learn more about where the GPS credit  will count in your degree program.

Great Problems Seminars are available in either A-Term and B-term or B-term and C-term.  Current course offerings include:

A and B-Term:

This Great Problems Seminar addresses the possibilities and liabilities of human life in the urban environment. As an increasing proportion of the world’s population becomes urban, the possibilities for human achievement and the particular difficulties encountered in city life become more pressing. Through lectures, readings, discussion, and group projects this course will examine the ways in which the interaction of urban ecology, globalization and labor markets, social and environmental justice, city design and planning, and gentrification come together to create contemporary urban life. Urban sprawl can pose many threats to the environment, and we will examine ecological conditions (e.g., land use, pollution, heat island), patterns (e.g., changes in diversity), and processes (e.g., invasion of non-native species) associated with urbanization and how these influence and are influenced by social conditions in cities. Additionally, students will develop an area of expertise in one problem of urban living and research, present, and propose sustainable solutions.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit SS1000 credit and 1/3 unit HU1100 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 A01 (CRN 10545)and FY 1101 B01 (CRN 10546)

If the moment we are living in has revealed anything, it is that our contemporary modes of life are deeply unsustainable. The world’s ecosystems and social systems are vulnerable to a number of accelerating threats from environmental degradation and climate change to economic inequality and environmental injustice. The recent global pandemic has added to this and shone a light on unsustainability while also giving us a glimpse of a possible future with reduced fossil fuel use and carbon emissions. In this class we will look at these problems from a number of perspectives and try to understand what a transition to a more sustainable mode of existence might entail.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit SS1000 credit and 1/3 unit HU1100 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 A02 (CRN 10657) and FY 1101 B02 (CRN 10658)

What are the greatest threats to global health? A zoonotic virus? Antibiotic resistant ‘super bugs’? Pollution? Climate change? Lack of access to needed medications and adequate health care? Substance abuse and mental wellbeing? The list is long. In this course, students will work in teams with the support of faculty advisors to research and develop technological, biological, policy-driven, and other types of solutions to help answer these questions in cases around the world.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit BB1000 credit and 1/3 unit SSPS1000 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 A03 (CRN 10357) and FY 1101 B03 (CRN 10359)

Throughout most of Earth’s history, species disappeared at an average rate of 1 to 5 per year, and fossil evidence shows that five mass extinction catastrophes have occurred. Scientists estimate that we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction; species are currently disappearing at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal background rate. Where are extinctions currently having the greatest impact? How might conservation efforts prevent extinctions? This Great Problems Seminar will examine debates about past and present causes of extinction, the factors that contribute to vulnerability or resiliency of endangered species, and the consequences of species loss. For example, studies now demonstrate that the trade of wild animals and increasing habitat loss driven by human activities are making pathogenic outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic more common. Student project groups will focus on specific extinction-related problems and develop and present sustainable solution approaches based on their investigations. 

This GPS carries 1/3 unit BB1000 credit and 1/3 unit HU1100 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 A04 (CRN 11201) and FY 1101 B04 (CRN 11370)

This course focuses on material resources and reusing them—recycling. It blends engineering with humanities and builds a framework for the world in which students will live, showing them how they can make the world different through their ingenuity and innovation. Policy and societal issues are also discussed in the context of the recovery and recycling. Students collaborate with the NSF Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling (CR3) and work on projects sponsored by leading global corporations.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit ES 1000 credit and 1/3 unit HU1100 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 A05 (CRN 10434) and FY 1101 B05 (CRN 10435)

This course tackles one of humankind’s greatest challenges: How do you provide shelter for over 7 billion people, almost half of whom live on less than $5.50 a day? With rising slum populations and increasing natural disasters, homes damaged by earthquakes and overflowing refugee camps, how do we address the growing demands for safe living spaces?  What do we need to understand as designers, engineers, or aid workers to provide shelter for the world? Working in teams in this design studio, we will learn about relevant  design concepts, the Design-Build process, materials, and structure to address this housing challenge. We will build a shelter-model that is affordable, safe, and appropriate for our selected population.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit ES1000 credit and 1/3 unit SSPS1000 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 A06 (CRN 10487 ) and FY 1101 B06A (CRN 10482 ) and FY 1101 B06B (CRN 11840 )

B and C-Term:

During the summer registration period, you will be able to register only for the B term course, but the registrar will make sure that you are also registered for the C term portion of the course.

Global climate change is here, from sea level rise, to stronger storms, and more dangerous wildfire seasons – just to name a few impacts. What does it mean to live in this new environment? What does it mean for our ecosystems and civilization? How can we adapt to a new and unpredictable climate and mitigate practices that could lead to further warming? We will examine the causes and consequences of climate change on the environment and people, incorporating a local to global approach. Both scientific (environment, ecology, wildlife, weather events) and humanistic (politics, ethics, economics, social justice) pieces of the climate puzzle will be investigated. This course will place a special emphasis on valuing differential impacts on vulnerable people and habitats. While working toward identifying a problem that your team can solve, you will build skills in critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and ethics.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit BB1000 credit and 1/3 unit INTL1000 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 B09 (CRN 15427)  and FY 1101 C09 (CRN 23421

Every community faces energy problems. Solutions to these problems involve both positive and negative consequences. Fossil fuels currently dominate the energy landscape but have impacts that are becoming less and less acceptable. Renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar, are gaining traction but present a whole new set of challenges. This course investigates the depth and breadth of energy production, transmission, and use. It explores the technical, social, economic, and environmental effects and challenges of power generation.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit PH1000 credit and 1/3 unit SSPS1000 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 B10 (CRN 15426) and FY 1101 C10 (CRN 23420)

Should where you grow up and go to school determine how well you do in life? Students will study educational systems around the world and explore how factors like nature and nurture, opportunity and outcome, and the availability of education technology affect a person’s life.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit CS1010* credit and 1/3 unit SSPS1000 credit.

*Will not count as CS in distribution requirements for any but CS majors.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 B11 (CRN 15428) and FY1100 B12 (CRN 15500) and FY 1101 C11 (CRN 23422) and FY1101 C12 (CRN 23503)

This course explores the concepts of development, technology, and water access in a remote region of southwest Morocco, where indigenous people have historically been denied access to basic human rights, including water and sanitation. In recent decades, climate change and other factors have further damaged the water access of these rural villages. To both study and address the problem, this course will explore the culturally appropriate and technologically advanced methods of harvesting water from fog that have been used by the NGO Dar Si Hmad ( ), which operates the largest fog water harvesting system in the world. Our approach is integrative, where students work on teams to learn approaches and concepts from engineering, humanities, and the integration of these disciplines.

This GPS carries 1/3 unit HU1100 credit and 1/3 unit ES1000 credit.

  • Course numbers FY 1100 B13 (CRN 15613) and FY 1101 C13 (CRN 23611)