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In the year-long course Special Topic in Cognitive Science, first-year students of the Research Master’s programme in Brain and Cognitive Sciences are challenged to provide an answer to a Big Question. For example: can you recreate consciousness in a computer? Or: why do some people thrive in an urban environment, while others develop health problems? Students explored their Big Question in the first semester by juxtaposing and comparing sources from different disciplines. During a three-day Pressure Cooker in January, the students were then asked to ‘get out of the building’ and put their answers to the question in practice.

Three-day Pressure Cooker

The IIS Pressure Cooker is a method in which students work on a real-life issue under time pressure according to the five steps of the Design Thinking method. The steps ultimately lead the students to a solution in the form of a product, service or advice. Despite the particularly difficult circumstances in times of COVID-19, the Pressure Cooker allowed the students to progress with their projects and move forward with their ideas during several digital meetings. Students were to start doing applied research, reflecting on stakeholders in their research topic and interventions they could do, based on their previous findings.

Copyright: Paul Born
Despite not being able to meet to work together on their group projects, the Pressure Cooker made us realise it is still possible to brainstorm and plan together online. We can still make creative plans - even in virtual space. Njal van Woerden, the teacher responsible for the Pressure Cooker in January 2021

Dragon’s Den

The students presented their proposed interventions during a Dragon’s Den. They were given 5 minutes to pitch their - creative, yet knowledge-based - ideas to put their inspiration into practice. Skyla Herod, one of the teachers of the course, explains: “I am inspired by the resilience and creativity of our students, to be able to, as we say in our tutor group, “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome." Of course, distance learning provides a unique challenge to this small group-based, interactive course. But our students have risen to the challenge and pushed through the long days of ‘Zoom Brain Drain’ to produce some really cool ideas that have the potential for significant social impact.”

Student projects

Students Joseph Cohen and Kai Schüren presented their idea to form a United Nations data committee with representatives from every UN member state, dedicated entirely to the governance of data, as opposed to general data regulations that are already in place.

Judit Campdepadrós Barrios, together with team members Babke Weenk, Oliver Bais and Sarah der Nederlanden, pitched an idea for a three-pronged solution to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in an impressive video:

Another group focussed on Mental Health in Cities and proposed a bio-receptive concrete for moss growth to develop a climate-proof and livable environment in cities:

Image by Respyre
Image by Respyre

Building bridges

The course Special Topic in Cognitive Science helps students to become interdisciplinary scientists of mind and brain who can tackle important issues in society. Teacher Skyla Herod adds: “As our world becomes more integrated, it becomes essential that future generations of scientists and scholars have experience in interdisciplinary research, critical and creative thinking, and communication of scientific ideas to the public and various stakeholders.”

Cook with us!

The IIS Pressure Cooker 'Design Thinking' is an intensive transdisciplinary learning activity aimed at connecting science and society. This educational format has been successfully carried out in several courses within the UvA, both at Bachelor's and Master's level. We are now implementing this educational format wider within Dutch universities and offer support in setting up a tailor-made Pressure Cooker. 

  • Read more about the IIS Pressure Cooker here
  • Download the pdf here