Sean Leuschner wondered if he was in the wrong room when he showed up for the first session of “Global Warming.” The University at Buffalo freshman had assumed the course would be held in a big lecture hall filled with students. Instead, he found himself in a small classroom with 23 other first-year students and the instructor, Jason P. Briner, an expert on climate change and associate professor of geology.
“I was thinking everyone would want to take this course. I went into the room, and it’s just like a conference table,” said Leuschner, a nursing major from Westchester County.
In the past at UB, a seminar course with an accomplished researcher like Briner – he has studied glacial and ice sheet changes around the world – would have been limited to upper-level undergraduate or graduate students. But as part of a revamped core curriculum launched this semester at UB, freshmen and first-year transfer students are being introduced to tenure-track faculty members in intimate classroom settings as soon as they arrive on campus.
“Global Warming” is one of 170 new freshman seminars now being taught at UB. The seminars, developed over the past two years, are the first blush of a massive general education curriculum overhaul that changes the way UB educates every undergraduate student. Starting with the class of 2020, the new curriculum requires all students, regardless of their majors, to take 12 general education courses over four years. In all, UB faculty designed more than 200 new courses and tweaked hundreds of existing courses, the biggest curriculum change in at least two decades.
UB joins dozens of other large research universities that have overhauled their general education programs since 2010, moving away from traditional “distribution” models of general education – in which students picked an English lit course here and an anthropology course there and so on to satisfy requirements.
A major reason for the changes: The old models weren’t “fostering the kinds of learning that the glossy brochures promise,” said Kate Drezek McConnell, an educational psychologist who is senior director for research and assessment at the Association of American Colleges & Universities. “What many campuses were finding was the sum was not actually greater than the parts. Students were not making connections across the courses and across the disciplines. And more often than not, students were saying ‘I don’t understand how this connects to my major.’”
The new UB core replaces a previous general education curriculum that students complained was impractical and uninspiring and that most of them never fulfilled anyway, due to a variety of waivers and exemptions.
The new curriculum places a premium on oral and written communication, diversity learning, math and scientific reasoning. The courses a student selects are meant to build on each other through their four years on campus. Students must also submit a “capstone project” to complete the general education requirements.
It’s all part of creating what faculty and administrators like to call a “shared intellectual experience” for students, no matter what major they choose. The new core also incorporates more community-based learning, internships and collaborative assignments and projects that research has shown helps student learning and keeps students enrolled.
UB, which typically spent about $15 million a year teaching general education courses, will invest an additional $3 million a year getting the new curriculum off the ground. Much of that will pay for freeing up faculty to teach the smaller seminar courses. There’s also the cost of a digital platform that allows students to create and maintain an “eportfolio” of their general education work over their four years and even after they graduate.
The changes at UB are part of a broader movement across academia to “re-energize liberal arts and take it away from just that laundry list of requirements that many people had to take for general education in college before and actually try and connect the pieces,” said Andrew M. Stott, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education who is overseeing the rollout of UB’s new curriculum.
Using college to gain a credential and enter a profession is an important aspect of higher education.
“But it’s not all of it, right?” Stott said. “What remains is, ‘What does it mean to be an educated person?’
“We think it’s fundamental to big lofty goals, like strengthening democracy,” he said. “You know every educated person is a stitch in the fabric of a civic society and we really need that if we’re going to have a safe and prosperous future.”
Developing the mind
General education reforms also are a response to employers, who increasingly demand graduates with “higher-order” thinking skills that enable them to work collaboratively, said Drezek McConnell.
Across the country, colleges fall short of giving their students a firm foundation in the areas of knowledge they’ll use for a lifetime, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Each year, ACTA grades colleges on whether they require students to take courses in seven key subjects: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science. Two-thirds of the 1,100 institutions surveyed earned a “C” or lower for their general education requirements, including UB. The group’s latest survey, released Thursday, found that UB required just three of the seven subjects, composition, mathematics and science.
Curricular changes often are messy, bruising affairs in academia. Determining exactly what gets taught at a place like UB ultimately is the domain of faculty members, who tend to have strong and varied convictions about what students need to know.
Faculty and administrators started in 2009 with that question, as well as a consensus understanding that the Great Books, Western Civilization approach to liberal arts education simply isn’t broad and inclusive enough in an age of information overload and globalization.
So instead of creating a general education program around a set of specific topics a student must learn, a curriculum committee focused on how to develop “the mega-cognitive skills” they should have.
“Ultimately what we’re trying to do is develop habits of mind – give people more intellectual creativity and flexibility,” Stott said.
The new general education program received the green light in 2014, with a vote of the Faculty Senate, although some skeptics believe the changes watered down the general education program and lowered academic standards.
A linchpin of the new curriculum is the seminar courses introduced this fall. The courses, each limited to no more than 28 students, have bold, catchy titles and are designed around big ideas or issues in the world. There’s a seminar on “How the Internet Works.” English professor James Holstun teaches “Iraq and the American War.” Assistant professor of geography Nicholas F. Lustig’s “Slums of the World’s Megacities” examines what led to large swaths of impoverishment in places like Cairo, Mexico City and Mumbai.
The courses are designed to introduce freshmen to the rigors of university coursework. “It’s a cliché of large state schools that you’ll go there and you’ll be warehoused in these mega lectures and you’ll be taught by teaching assistants and doctoral students and you don’t get to the faculty until you do upper-division work,” Stott said. “And we really want to buck the trend and say, ‘No, we really care about you feeling engaged with the faculty immediately. We really care about you having a small classroom experience, and that very first experience in the classroom should be about intellectual curiosity and exploration.’ ”
Carole Emberton, a Civil War expert and associate professor of history at UB, developed a seminar called “All in the Family,” which uses genealogical exploration to examine history more broadly.
During a recent class, students discussed their reactions to episodes of “Finding Your Roots,” a PBS show that features celebrities learning about their ancestries.
Students were assigned to watch an episode and write a two-page paper about it.
Around a large conference table dotted with water bottles and notebooks, the conversation veered from slavery to World War I and wandered into the Indian Partition and the Great Migration.
Emberton sat at one end of the conference table, serving more as facilitator than lecturer, with students doing most of the talking during the 50-minute session. Emberton used the popular show to ease students into the content, but by the end of the course, she expects them to do their own genealogical research, either on their own family or of a family of some historical importance.
“It’s a really popular way that people interact with the past,” she said. “I thought it would be a good way to interest students who might think they’re not interested in history.”
The seminar was exactly what Marina Garcia needed to counterbalance the more traditional survey courses she’s taking. Garcia, a sophomore from Williamsville studying sociology, transferred to UB from Daemen College, a smaller institution. She was intimidated by the size of her new campus.
“My psych class has over 400 students, which was a huge culture shock for me. It was like being in an arena,” she said.
Before the start of the semester, Emberton collected photographs of all the students in her class, so she could better connect names with faces.
“She wanted to get to know us,” Garcia said. “It set me up for the rest of my courses, the rest of my semester here. It was like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ ”
Engaged in class
Few places in the world seemed as distant from a hurricane as UB’s North Campus on a late summer afternoon of cloudless skies. But on the fourth floor of Cooke Hall, typhoons were the subject of a spirited classroom discussion. Briner directed a dozen students to find evidence in their assigned readings supporting the notion that climate change and hurricanes were unrelated. He told the other half of the class to show findings suggesting a link. For 20 minutes, both groups developed plausible lists, with credible sources.
“What is going on with this difference in what people are saying?” Briner asked.
He knows that while global warming is a real phenomenon, the statistics aren’t definitive yet on whether global warming already has caused more and stronger hurricanes.
But he wanted students to dissect the information for themselves and struggle with the nuances of the debate.
This method of teaching yields better results in the long run, said Drezek McConnell, the educational psychologist.
“It’s more important what you have students do, than what you as a faculty member do,” she said. “Their learning will be deeper the more they have to roll up their sleeves and mess around with the content and the material.”
Briner has published scholarly articles and traveled to Greenland, Norway and Alaska for his research. He looks every bit the part of a globetrotting geologist who scours the Arctic for clues about climate change. He rides a bike to campus and paces the room in hiking shoes and Carhartt slacks, prodding students with questions. He tells students to take notes during class discussions – to hone their skills for future lecture courses.
Students in Briner’s class come from many disciplines, including business, humanities, social sciences and engineering, and most have some passion for the environment.
The small, casual space “definitely gets students more engaged in the class,” Leuschner said.
In future sessions of “Global Warming,” students will discuss the rise in sea levels, the politics of climate change denial and how global warming might affect winter weather in Buffalo. Briner hopes to get them thinking about the way the natural sciences interact with everyday life. And beyond that, he’s trying to mold the kind of student he wants to teach at more advanced levels – students who take good notes, think critically, study and write well, and know how to manage their time.
“I’m also teaching them how to succeed as college students,” he said.