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You’ve heard of swotting – locking yourself away to cram before an exam. Now a group of 100 UNSW students are perfecting the art of un-swotting – learning through connecting and conversing. And they’ve created a new verb in the process.

The law and engineering students are being led by renowned social entrepreneur and UNSW alumnus Dorjee Sun in a startup-style program to facilitate conversations about local and global challenges.

“We are exploring how we can motivate any person at UNSW to be able to start a conversation, formulate an idea and activate a group,” says Sun, who has launched 16 social enterprises, and whose work for Carbon Conservation was the subject of the feature documentary ‘The Burning Season’. In 2009, TIME named him a Hero of the Environment.

As part of the UNSW program, the students are developing a digital platform called using design innovation techniques and rapid prototyping of entrepreneurial ideas. 

The hope is that un-swotting will become a popular campus activity. Some of the first challenges to be tackled cover issues such as climate change, artificial intelligence,  ISIS,  and affordable housing.

Sun says he was inspired to take up the challenge after a conversation with UNSW Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs, who emphasised the importance of helping students develop a global perspective, and make connections across all faculties.

The key to innovation is making connections, Sun believes. “The people you know lead to the opportunities you get,” he says. “If we double connections, we should be able to double innovation."

Second-year mechanical engineering student Albert Chau is impressed by the approach. “So far I’ve been astounded by the progress. We’ve been advancing very rapidly. 

“If you take a look at the website, when we first started it was basically a one-page forum but in less than five days we’ve suddenly got all this magic happening,” he says.

“In mechanical engineering I hear about metal, stress testing, mathematics, I don’t hear about the situation in third world countries, I don’t hear about disaster proofing or politics and our place in the world, but I should because I’m a citizen of the world and these things are important."

Chau says Unswot neatly fills the gap of what university is "course focussed" and what university is supposed to be about, "ideas and global citizens”.

Unswot student

Dorjee Sun (left) with students in the Unswot program.

22-year-old law student Sandrah Mikha agrees, but says the main attraction is the practical focus: “The platform is not just about discussing things, it’s about developing options and finding methods of changing something. 

“We’ve had some inspirational speakers from Uber, the Law Reform Commission and TedX on how to go about collaborating and changing things.

“Dorjee’s really inspirational. He gives you heaps of support. He doesn’t make you do things, he makes you want to do things,” she says.

The students aim to roll out the Unswot program across the university in semester two, and to engage more than 1000 students in the process.

They have even persuaded local cafes to offer a free coffee, and hope by summer to see the program spread throughout Sydney.