Winter Breakaway: Students Design Their Future

Two-week program offers learning opportunities for students to expand their skills

After months of an accelerated fall semester without a break, students will have two months to fill before the spring semester. Many of them are signing up now for an early return to learning in one of 13 virtual programs offered during a special winter series.

Winter Breakaway (Jan. 4-15) will be a low-stress learning experience that allows undergraduate and graduate students a range of options. Some will cover non-traditional subjects such as the study of wellness.  Others will ask students to step outside their majors and think creatively on large subjects such as the ethics of artificial intelligence and the future of education at Duke University.

All programs are free to Duke students. There are no grades and none of the programs require pre-requisites; some of them offer a Practice-Oriented Experience notation on a student’s transcript. As of Oct. 27, more than 350 students had enrolled.

Associate Provost and Senior Adviser Noah Pickus described the classes as “something like a pickup basketball game” where members of the Duke community who normally wouldn’t meet in regular classes come together. Students get an opportunity to pick up skills outside of their majors that will serve them well in their future, Pickus said, while the university gets to put their creative minds to work on important issues.

When designing the program, Pickus said organizers were aware of the pressures both faculty and students have been under during pandemic learning.

“We were looking at two contending forces,” he said. “We know students and faculty are exhausted, and one option was just to leave them alone. But the other is some of these students are staring at two months without any opportunities, and that can be uncomfortable as well. We wanted to design this as a set of options where students could select a course that was right for them. It could be a one-hour wellness class or they could do a 20-hour-a-week design sprint on the future of education, or something in between, or nothing at all.”

Students helped in the creation of the programs. One who was involved said he’s heard from Duke students who were looking for project opportunities during the long break.

“One of the things which is true about most—if not all—Duke students is that they have this intrinsic, fiery drive,” said junior Shrey Majmudar. He is co-chair of the 2021 Student Advisory Board and Duke Student Government vice president of academic affairs.

“Duke students are not the type of individuals who enjoy sitting around for long periods of time,” Majmudar added. “We'll get a chance to totally unplug from Duke for approximately five weeks, after which our students will be itching to do something productive and intellectual. What better way to satisfy that craving than to engage in Winter Breakaway, given the low stakes (no grades) and incredible topics?”

Since there will be no spring break this coming semester, Winter Breakaway is designed in part to replicate the kind of low-key, creative learning experience that Spring Breakthrough has become known for, Pickus said. One key element Winter Breakaway shares with Spring Breakthrough is an effort to allow students to go outside their discipline and learn something new.

It differs in the type of experiences being offered and the fact the winter programs will mix graduate and undergraduate students.

“Some of these programs will be made better by having the greatest cross section of students take part,” Pickus said. “Duke 2030 is a course on what should learning look like in the future. We wanted to involve graduate students as well as undergraduates in that discussion. The future of learning is often about breaking down traditional, barriers, so many of the Winter Breakaway programs will benefit by having this mixture of students.”

Faculty and staff jumped in to help organize the offerings. Pickus said administrators wanted to be mindful of the challenges the semester had already put on faculty, as well as the students. But some of the offerings were already in the planning and could be repurposed for Winter Breakaway. One such offering was a program on artificial intelligence designed by Vice President for Research Lawrence Carin and other faculty.

Nita Farahany, professor of law and philosophy and director of the Duke Initiative for Science and Society, then offered a complementary program looking at the ethical questions raised by AI and other new technologies. This slate of offerings was rounded out when Jeff Harris from the Duke in DC office and Matt Perault, the former director of public policy at Facebook and now the director of science and technology at Duke’s Science and Society initiative, put together a program on the policy dimensions of AI and technology.

Another broad theme of several offerings involves human and technological skills. Pickus said this connects Winter Breakaway to Duke’s wider effort in the liberal arts curriculum to prepare students for a future where a range of skills will be valued.

“The programs are designed to let students pick up complementary skills,” Pickus said. “If you’re a classics student and are hearing a lot about the value of coding in Python in your class, but you don’t want to major in computer science, here’s an easy way to get an introduction. Or if you’re a literature major and want to learn about the future of user interface in web design, you can do that too.

And if you’re a computer science major and want to learn about the role that empathy and creativity play in designing new products and programs, then we’ve got an offering for you. We wanted students to easily cross over from where they are focused and add to their abilities to collaborate in teams, communicate well across different media, and develop digital competencies. It’s all about giving them options to strengthen their repertoire for a future in which both human and technical skills will be critical.”

Winter Breakaway registration has begun, with a deadline of Dec. 1. Course previews will be offered on Wednesday, Oct. 28, and Friday, Oct. 30.