Twelve University of Georgia doctoral students have completed the Graduate Scholars Leadership, Engagement and Development (GS LEAD) Summer Academy, presented by the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development and the Graduate School and have moved to the next phase of the GS LEAD program—the Grand Challenge Course.

GS LEAD includes a summer-long, student-centered leadership academy that fosters the development of critical skills through an innovative approach that infuses doctoral training with experiential learning. This is followed in the fall by GRSC 8400, the Grand Challenge Course, in which students work in teams to apply the learning from the Summer Academy to real-world community challenges.

“The focus on interdisciplinary thinking, leadership development and community engagement has renewed me personally, professionally and in my mindset toward upcoming academic pursuits,” said Kevin Kirsche, a graduate student in the Integrative Conservation PhD Program (ICON) and the current director of UGA’s Office of Sustainability.

The program was developed as an interdisciplinary partnership by the UGA Graduate School, the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development and multiple academic and public service units across UGA.

It features both facilitated instruction in professional skills and experiential learning. GS LEAD also provides peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities and makes engagement a compelling component of student dissertations.

The 12 students, who are from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and other disciplines, advanced to a Grand Challenge Course scheduled for fall semester. This three-hour credit course, led by Ramana Pidaparti, associate dean of UGA’s College of Engineering, will be taken along with other courses in their Ph.D. programs.

They will use the knowledge gained from the GS LEAD Summer Academy to design a prototype for a community challenge.

“For me, the notion of engaging the community in STEM research has transformed from an afterthought to a crucial aspect of experimental design,” said Julie Ziemba, a Ph.D. student in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology. “My experience in the GS LEAD program has shifted my focus from asking, ‘What do I want to research?’ to ‘What do I want my research to do?’ ”

The Summer Academy is part of a National Science Foundation funded program to train doctoral students in problem solving, interdisciplinary teamwork, leadership, communication and engagement.

Fanning Institute faculty members Janet Rechtman and Brandy Walker designed and led the GS LEAD Summer Academy.

“The most exciting thing about the Summer Academy for me was the chance to build a bridge between Public Service and Outreach and our academic partners,” Rechtman said. “We got to know and work with students and faculty from many different disciplines and to connect UGA people with members of the many different communities we serve.”