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And Now For Something Completely Different...

S. Bockenhauer sitting on steps
Apr 2 2014
Education, Events, Students, VPGE

When we learned Samuel Bockenhauer, PhD student in Physics, had taken four Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI) courses, we just had to ask him to share his intellectual explorations in a newsletter article. 

By Samuel Bockenhauer

How are an elementary school student’s “recess” and a professor’s sabbatical similar? Both aim to refresh and re-energize, to help refocus the student's or professor's attention and give them new perspectives on their studies. Although not a perfect analogy with either “recess” or the sabbatical, the Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI) offers something close for graduate students … 

S. Bockenhauer staring at sky

What do design thinking, African history, energy technology, and emotional intelligence have in common? Each is the subject of a week-long summer course offered for free to Stanford graduate students. While graduate school in general involves deep study of a single main discipline, the Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI) offers the chance to broaden your horizons by immersing yourself in something different—either a topic related to your main discipline or something entirely new! 
When I first arrived at Stanford to join the Ph.D. program in physics, I was intensely focused on physics. The busy mix of late-night homework sessions, qualifying exam practice, and the excitement (and pressure!) of working with extremely gifted peers left little room for anything else. But as I found my footing in courses and research, I began to seek out opportunities for intellectual development beyond the lab and the library. 
The four SGSI courses I completed—Green Technology; The Experience: Adventures in Design Thinking; Energy@Stanford & SLAC; and Globalization, Development, and AIDS in Africa—were among the most rewarding and exciting experiences of my graduate career. Now, as a senior graduate student nearing completion of my Ph.D., I look back on these courses as ideal components of a balanced graduate education. 
Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration in Energy@Stanford & SLAC 
The greatest value of SGSI is the chance to collaborate with students from a variety of disciplines. Although my doctoral research is interdisciplinary among various scientific fields, I have minimal contact with peers in economics, business, and the humanities. 
At the Energy@Stanford & SLAC course, I worked for the first time in collaborative groups with students from the Graduate School of Business who were involved in work ranging from wind power investment to development at the World Bank. Although I possessed technical knowledge about many of the energy topics we discussed, their expertise in navigating regulations, investment, marketing, and a host of other concerns related to commercializing energy technologies left me with a more complete perspective on the energy sector.
Working with a collaborative group, I was able to practice the “sales pitch” and the briefer “elevator pitch” - two presentation formats less familiar in the humanities and science -focused around developing an energy portfolio. Opportunities to network with a diverse range of people arose naturally out of the many lunches and breaks between scheduled events. The lasting benefit of the Energy SGSI course for me was a diverse network of professional contacts with a common interest, many of whom I remain in touch with.

Students making presentation

Project-Based Learning in The Experience: Adventures in Design Thinking 
The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford ( is a unique place – at once a multi-disciplinary academic unit, an inspiring workshop space, and an innovative toolbox for grappling with difficult problems. Since the SGSI’s inception, the has offered a crash-course in design thinking in the form of an intensive project based on designing solutions to a problem. The year I took this SGSI course, we prototyped a startup company to address a rather unfamiliar problem for me and many other SGSI students: motherhood. 

Large group viewed from above

The SGSI course brought together grad students from areas as diverse as engineering, the sciences, law, and humanities. Many of us expected that we would be designing in the traditional, mechanical sense—gadgets, vehicles, skyscrapers. But the topic of motherhood challenged us in ways we had not expected. Among the “need-finding” tasks each team participated in was interviewing mothers, children, babysitters, and bookstore clerks in order to identify potential motherhood start-up markets. After we identified a “need”—mentoring for new mothers—we began prototyping a social website for mothers to connect and share advice and expertise. My team and I found it both challenging and exciting to address a topic which was so far outside our traditional academic areas of expertise. This process of need-finding and iterating on prototype products is useful not only in entrepreneurship, but also in academic research, and even career planning! 
After Recess, New Sparks 
The other two SGSI courses I took, Green Technology and African Globalization, gave me similar exposure to entirely new areas of knowledge and diverse networks of interesting people. After summer “recess” was over, I returned to my research and coursework refreshed and with a broadened perspective as a scholar. For graduate students who are seeking new energy, inspiration, and new ideas and skills to apply to their work, an SGSI course would be well worth your time.
Check out the summer 2013 Stanford Graduate Summer Institute course offerings. Applications are being accepted until Friday, May 10.  All current and incoming Stanford graduate students from any field are welcome to apply.  Watch the SGSI 2012 slideshow and the musical tribute to Energy@Stanford & SLAC by Andrew Scheuerman, Materials Science and Engineering doctoral student. 
Originally published in theSpring 2013 VPGE News & Notes; photos courtesy of S. Bockenhauer and VPGE staff