Looking ahead to our project meeting in New Orleans, Anne Kelsch and I thought we would ask folks in the GEMs community of practice to think about which of the five design principles they think are being enacted successfully at your institutions (and how), and which you may need to work on. But we don't want to ask you to do things we've not done; hence this blog entry. :-)
I'm not currently on a campus, but I came to AAC&U just six months ago from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, so I can speak from that experience. NWU implemented (pre-GEMs) a GEMs-ish curricular structure that launched about a year and a half ago. Based on that design, I'd say that one principle being enacted successfully there is #3, Integrative Learning and Problem-Based Inquiry. (I'll write a subsequent blog entry about the principle on which I think we need to work more, which is Transparency and Assessment.)
Recall that according to this third principle, students should "develop and demonstrate proficiency through a combination and integration of curricular, cocurricular, and community-based learning . . . . [and] through inquiry into unscripted questions and problems that are relevant to their interests and aims and where a full understanding of the problem requires insights from multiple areas of study." This dovetails with the LEAP Challenge to make "Signature Work" an expected standard of learning in college.
After a three-year revision process, NWU moved from a distributive model to one that is more integrative, with key skills scaffolded over four years, majors and GE more connected, and experiential learning woven in. The heart of the new program is the Integrative Core, otherwise known as "threads." According to the Archway Curriculum document, "The Integrative Core prepares students to confront the multifaceted challenges that face them as members of a diverse and global society. In these courses, students examine a core issue from different disciplinary, cultural, historical, social, scientific, artistic, or ethical perspectives. As a result of this integrative study, students develop the intercultural, interpersonal, and interdisciplinary skills they will need as the next generation of civic and professional leaders."
Students must take either two 9-credit threads (with at least 2 disciplines represented) or one 18-credit thread (with at least 4 disciplines represented). Many courses that used to count as distribution requirements (and several newly-designed courses) are now found in thread arrangements. However, threads cannot be completed solely at the introductory level. Threads are encouraged to incorporate experiential and community-based learning, including internships, as appropriate. Students integrate their learning across thread courses and experiences in a variety of ways: interdisciplinary gateway courses, projects that build across thread courses, or thread capstones. All students have eportfolios they can use as vehicles for collecting, connecting, and reflecting on their work in threads and other parts of the curriculum. Transfer students bringing in more than 26 credit hours may take one 9-credit thread and substitute a distribution of humanities, social science, and fine arts courses for the second thread (if they choose), utilizing their digital workspace to articulate the links among those courses.
Threads currently in operation include Environment, Democracy, Power, Identity, Chaos, Science & Religion, and Gender & Sexuality. when proposed to the curriculum committee, each group of faculty offering a thread must articulate a mission statement, goals, and a set of "big ideas" or "big questions" that help to link the interdisciplinary thread offerings (and which students may pursue through the thread). They must also address logistics such as number and level of courses, how often they will be taught over a cycle of four years, and which ones incorporate key skills (what we call Essential Connections).
Prior to moving to AAC&U, I was part of the "Humans in the Natural Environment" and the "Exercising Power and Authority" threads; I'll use material from the Environment thread as an example. Its mission is this: “'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.' --John Muir This thread models the interconnectedness of the living community by asking students to examine scientific constructs and cultural interpretations of the natural environment from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, and in global historical, social, and political contexts. By exploring themes of connection, expression, change, resilience, accountability, and sustainability, and through community engagement and active participation in natural settings, students should develop a sense of agency and urgency in helping to address vital environmental issues."
The "Big Ideas" are these (each course in the thread must address at least two, and students revisit them through assignments across the thread): Sustainability: In what ways have human cultures affected the earth and challenged the vital function of natural systems? How can humans actively engage in solutions to reduce destructive processes for the continued existence of the living community? Conflict & Resolution: How have political, historical, social, cultural, and international factors shaped interactions between humans and the natural world? Connection & Accountability: What benefits can a direct connection between the individual and the environment provide for humanity, and what benefits might more connection mean for the living environment? Conversely, what happens to human beings when they are disconnected from nature, and how might humans treat nature as a result? Is it imperative for humans to forge connections with the natural environment in order to develop a sense of accountability to that environment? How and/or why do people (or human cultures) acknowledge, appreciate, and interact with the natural environment? Change & Resilience: What is the role of change in the natural world? How have ideas about the natural environment shifted over time? How are the resiliencies of natural systems and human cultures being challenged on a global scale? Expressions: How do artistic expressions engage with nature? (Some include mimicking elements of the natural world, exploring the value of the natural environment, raising awareness for environmental problems, and advocating for reform.) How do differences in cultural and historical context produce different definitions of concepts like "nature," "environment," or "wilderness"?
Courses in this thread (thus far) are from eight departments, and include Environmental Literature; Studies in Rhetoric (Environment); Environmental Science; Conservation Biology; Energy & the Global Environment; Environmental History; Psychological Benefits of Nature; Environmental Sociology; Population, Resources, & Environment; Humans and Nature in Film: and Music History (Environment). The faculty must meet at least once per semester to discuss assignments, thread events, advising, assessment, etc. Each thread has a coordinator, and a common eportfolio where faculty can post relevant events, common readings, informational links, etc.
The key here is that integrative learning isn't just for the students; it's for the faculty as well. We have to be able and willing to model the kind of learning we want students to accomplish. One colleague said that in his first one-hour thread planning meeting, he learned more about what and how colleagues were teaching in other disciplines than he'd discovered in his previous 20 years at the university!