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New College transforms freshman general education coursework


December 07, 2010

In a recent e-newsletter produced by ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, dean Elizabeth Langland noted in her opening message that the college was set to “radically” redefine the general education series of courses that colleges and universities in the U.S. typically require of all students. And while the new coursework is already mapped, the rubber meets the road during the upcoming spring semester when 30 freshmen at ASU’s West campus will have the opportunity to enroll in a pilot roll-out of the new curriculum, which links four courses through a common theme.

“The payoff for freshmen is huge,” said Langland, an ASU vice president and professor of English in New College. “They will learn how various forms of knowledge are interrelated, and they will learn the importance of taking interdisciplinary approaches to complex challenges.

“In addition, they will learn how to apply effective communication skills and analytical and quantitative analysis to solve the real-world problems and challenges we face.”

The redefinition of general education is under the leadership of New College associate dean Tom Keil, who has worked with faculty from the college’s three divisions – humanities, arts and cultural studies; social and behavioral sciences; and mathematical and natural sciences – to create a curriculum that will focus on student learning outcomes, rather than how many credits they compile. By linking together writing, critical thinking, information and qualitative literacy in interdisciplinary, problem-based courses, Langland says faculty have developed a new general education program that will allow New College students to integrate knowledge within and across disciplinary boundaries and discover how forms of knowledge interrelate to produce meaningful solutions to today’s challenges.

Keil, a professor in social and behavioral sciences who chaired the college committee to design the specifics of the program and identify the specific hoped-for learning outcomes, said the revisions were necessary.

“To this point, our general ed offerings have resembled a smorgasbord of courses,” he noted. “Students picked classes as they became available to meet the requirements. There was very little coherence in gen ed offerings. What we wanted to accomplish was a set of gen ed offerings that had this coherence so that students could see how an interdisciplinary framework could shed light on a phenomenon or a set of phenomena.”

The faculty committee includes Duku Anokye and Tom McGovern from humanities, arts and cultural sciences; Majia Nadesan and Suzanne Vaughn from social and behavioral sciences; Roger Berger and Todd Sandrin from mathematical and natural sciences; and Lisa Kammerlocher, social sciences librarian at ASU’s Fletcher Library.

This year’s New College thematic focus is on the subject of food. Discussions, readings, performances, lessons, the introduction of a Community-Supported Agriculture program and even culinary demonstrations have been a part of the experience. Beginning with the spring roll out of the New College general education coursework, students enrolled in Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Religion Martin Matustik’s humanities-based course focusing on religion, literature and philosophy will explore the importance of nourishing both body and spirit. At the same time, they will be able to link their insights in that course to one focusing on the economics and politics of food taught by Nadesan. In associated classes focusing on composition and quantitative reasoning, students will learn how to apply effective communication and analytic tools to articulate compelling solutions to the challenge of ensuring that the world’s population has access to the food they need to end hunger.

Librarian Kammerlocher contributed information literacy that are most essential for students living and working in an information economy. Her role as librarian is to promote opportunities for students to understand the information search process and practice using higher order thinking skills as they search for, use and communicate knowledge.

“General education can be disjointed, with students being completely unaware of why they are taking required courses,” she noted. “Our efforts are designed to create a more efficient, cohesive and integrated approach to general education while attending to skills and knowledge that support working and living in the 2st century.

“The redefinition of general education provides ASU’s librarians with the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in helping students achieve proficiency in searching for and using information. Faculty, librarians and advisors are all on the same page and working to help students reach a common goal. The New College faculty are great collaborators, and we are looking forward to working together to help our students succeed both at ASU and as lifelong learners.”

Langland said the philosophy behind a prescribed, required course of general study is to enable students to attain key proficiencies, but that more often than not misses the mark.

“What is meant to be a coherent program of study is, however, often experienced by students as a series of distinct and separate goals as they take a group of courses from a menu of disconnected options,” wrote Langland in the quarterly e-newsletter, what’s new. “We’re changing the curriculum and the experience in exciting and innovative ways to make it more meaningful for our students.”

The spring pilot program will expand in both theme and enrollment in the fall, and ultimately include all new freshmen in New College. Additionally, New College faculty will have the chance to collaborate on and contribute to innovative ways to interlink future curriculum that is designed to produce core proficiencies through classes built on thematic cores and topical issues.

ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences prepares its students to take their place as independent thinkers and active participants in the shaping of society. The college's diverse curriculum offers students the opportunity to design an individual course of study, to explore an interdisciplinary major, or enroll in a more traditional liberal arts and sciences program. New College offers programs emphasizing experiential learning that spans academic disciplines, enhances appreciation of all forms of creative activity, and empowers student achievement in the humanities, the arts and the sciences.

To subscribe to the free quarterly New College e-newsletter, click here.