Students’ research into persistent problems on display at Wicked Festival
Jae Horst and Emma Sneed stood beside a house of cards inside a room so busy with movement that it seemed likely the fragile structure could crumble at any time.
The cards served as a metaphor for the “housing crisis in the New River Valley,” Horst explained. “If you pull one out, everything crashes down, and that’s what housing can be like.”
Throughout their fall semester at Radford University, the duo studied housing issues of the 182,000 people who reside in the region. They gathered statistics, analyzed the impact of housing costs, examined efforts to remedy the problems – such as government-funded projects – and, true to their assignment, developed possible solutions – perhaps a legislative rent cap might work? – to what classifies as a wicked problem.
“Obviously, our solution isn’t perfect,” Sneed confessed,” but it’s a place to start.”
The challenge of finding solutions to nearly impossible issues is how wicked problems are defined.
As Horst and Sneed stood for an hour discussing their work, so did a few hundred other Radford University students taking part in the bi-annual Wicked Festival on Nov. 9 inside the hustling and bustling Kyle Hall.
The goal of the Wicked Festival is to give Radford undergraduate students, from freshmen to seniors, the tools and resources needed for them to become experts and problem-solvers for complex, persistent and “wicked” public issues.
This year, almost 500 students participated, a substantial increase from the 270 who presented at the spring event. In two sessions, students shared their work through elaborate posters displayed in Kyle while also engaging in conversations about their extensive research with fellow students, faculty, university administrators and others who walked through the event.
The College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences hosted the fall 2023 festival with support from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL), Citizen Leader and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (OURS).
Each student’s research grew from their work in a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, political science, economics, design, marketing, geography, education, criminal justice and social work. Students worked individually and in groups on their projects throughout the fall semester, building on their understanding of and possible solutions to a particular wicked problem. Homelessness, health and wellness, gender, poverty, education, the environment, food insecurity, U.S. and global politics and technology were among the themes students explored.
The festival is a product of Radford’s Wicked Problems Initiative, which is based on decades of research aimed toward engaging students in research that will develop their problem-solving skills as they examine some of the world’s most complex problems.
“Students love the Wicked Festival because it helps them solve practical problems, and it gives them confidence to say, ‘When I go into the real world, I can solve real-life problems,” said Director of International Studies and Professor of Political Science Tay Keong Tan, one of the festival organizers.
Sonya Sanie participated in Radford’s first Wicked Festival in the fall of 2021. “I still have my poster,” she said, smiling.
About 100 students participated in the first festival, held in a group of rooms on the ground floor of Heth Hall. Now, in only three years of existence, “it’s taking up three floors of Kyle Hall,” said Sanie, a senior political science major from Fairfax, Virginia, who is graduating in December. “It keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.”
A developing network of faculty incorporating wicked initiatives into their courses is sparking the growth.
Wicked at Radford is much more than a festival.
The Department of Philosophy offers a wicked problems class, which engages students early in their educational journey to think about difficult public problems and ways to construct solutions. The course established a foundation for a new wicked problems minor built from coursework in philosophy, religious studies and political science.
Under Tan’s direction, students are spearheading further initiatives through the creation of the Wicked Student Society for undergraduates and the Wicked Graduate Alliance for grad students interested in advancing their wicked problems research.
And that’s not all. Students have also established a Wicked Problems Toolkit, allowing them to work with the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education to create resources for faculty across the world who are teaching wicked problem-solving.
The Radford students’ work in all these initiatives was a big hit in Lisbon, Portugal, in September when they presented at the 10th Responsible Management Education Research Conference. Tan and each of the five Radford students, including Sanie, presented and received an award.
“Because of wicked, I’m now able to think about issues in several different ways, politically, economically, culturally and geopolitically,” said Sanie, who didn’t present at Radford’s fall festival but instead served as a volunteer.
Making connections is a big part of the festival and wicked initiatives, too, Sanie said, referring to those friendships she has forged with faculty.
“My relationship with Dr. Paige Tan and Dr. Tay Keong Tan has been really nice, and I’ve been able to work with them directly on wicked initiatives,” Sanie explained. “Those connections mean a lot.”
Those relationships are vital. There are numbers to prove it.
A fall 2023 analysis shows students who participated in the Wicked Festival from fall 2021 to spring 2023 were retained at Radford, 5.7% more than those who did not participate.
“Students and professors benefit from this,” Sanie said of the Wicked Festival. “It really brings people together when everyone is using their critical-thinking skills and working with each other and supporting each other.”
As many students mentioned during their Wicked Festival presentations, the semester-long research was quite demanding.
“It’s been challenging trying to put it all together,” said Sneed, a freshman political science major from Salem, Virginia. “It was a challenge to place such big-picture issues into a small frame.”
However, after chronicling the work’s demands, another word often followed.
“It has been challenging, but the Wicked Festival is very beneficial because it opens our eyes to issues that you may not always see in the classroom,” explained Spencer Rawlins, a senior political science major from Tampa, Florida. “The research we have done and getting the opportunity to present is very rewarding and beneficial to us.”
Standing beside her poster displaying research into cellphone dependency and screen addiction, psychology major Prestyn Akers spoke of the festival’s benefits for science majors.
“With the amount of research assignments we have, it really helps us to get an understanding of what it takes to do thorough research,” said the sophomore from Virginia Beach, Virginia.
For a few students, tangible honors were given out the night of the festival.
As the students presented, three teams of judges – each made up of a student, faculty and Radford alumni – trekked up and down the Kyle Hall steps to score the presentations. At the end of the night, awards were given for Distinguished Research, Outstanding Presentation and Impactful Solution. After the festival, another team of judges will evaluate video presentations for the video excellence award.
About 30 minutes before the awards ceremony began, Tay Keong Tan stood on the third floor of Kyle, looking over some of the projects and talking about some of those that had developed in his courses.
“There are so many good projects here tonight, and the students have put in a lot of work,” he said as a smile crept onto his face. “But many of us professors are competitive, and we want our students to win.”