The Undergraduate Awards is unique in that it brings together students from multiple academic disciplines for a three day, city-wide Summit held in Dublin from November 13th – 15th. This is the third global summit and it’s growing year on year with 66 students in attendance in 2013. They are joined by a plethora of Ted Talkers, a phenomenon that has injected new life into the ’15 minutes of fame’ cliche. They’re here to inspire these young students to realise their full potential and spark debate over the three days.
Represented at the Summit are 26 countries, 4 continents and 184 universities: humanities steeped Ivy League mixing with the practicalities of the ITs; a potentially potent cocktail. Diversity is the buzz word of the week. The applicants submitted 3,771 papers that were sifted through by the judging panels to pick out 42 winners and those that just missed out were recognised with the highly commended award and could also attend the Summit, 24 chose to take up this opportunity. Topics ranged from papers on deconstructionist readings of Chaucer’s poetry to creating an algorithm that maximises the sound potential of a music hall to the feeding and travel patterns of migrating seals all the way to the Ku Klux Klan; did I mention the diversity? It’s a veritable feast of undergraduate inquisitiveness, the best in budding scholarship and is fascinating reading if you get your hands on the sleekly presented journal that brings all this work together.
Day 1 was an early airport welcome spurred by caffeine and excitement over the few days that lay ahead for the students: new faces and new opportunities. The opening ceremony was held fittingly in the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland, a depository and archive of Irish culture that helps us examine our past. This was prescient because one of the major themes that was fleshed out during the Summit was the idea of building on the past. Theo Dorgan, poet and lecturer from Trinity, put it well by saying that “we back into the future” equipped with the past. This was echoed by Ruari Quinn at the Highly Commended Ceremony in the Long Room in Trinity when he compared the internet to the Gutenburg printing press in terms of the effect it will have on storing human knowledge. So the message was to take what’s gone before and learn from it, because it’s there, mistakes and all, and then to add to it.
The aristocratic Farmleigh House played host to the second day of the Summit which was titled the UA Colloquium. As the buses winded through the Phoenix Park it was hard not to be impressed, and somewhat proud, of the setting. The day was all about ideas: how they germinate, ferment and become a reality. Inspiring talks were given on the effects of porn, issues of mental health, climate change, stem research, war and the arts by such luminaries as Cindy Gallop, Prof. Elyn Saks, Majora Carter and our own theatre festival director Willie White. With these talks as a basis interactive breakout sessions§ took place in rooms around the house; the only thing that wasn’t interactive was the furniture.
The final day dealt with the hypothetical. Students discussed the practicalities of university life and tried to construct their collective idea of the Ideal U. This focused their minds on collaborating and dreaming with interesting results coming from the sessions. Then it was onto the formal awards ceremony in City Hall where the winners were given their medals by astronaut Mae Jamison, who was the first African American women to travel into space.
Clearly each student at the Undergraduate Awards is going to contribute to their own individual and specialised fields – no pressure then – but what this event is really about is an awareness that while you might specialise in quantum physics, maths, literature, information technology or business you live your daily life with and amongst all these disciplines. None are mutually exclusive from the real world and you can always learn from other academic disciplines by exposing your ideas to the rigour of friendly discourse; that’s why the UA Summit works.