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Tackling the Big Questions

By: David Brakke, Dean, College of Science and Mathematics, James Madison University

The conference plenaries and luncheon speakers at AAC&U's Annual Meeting addressed important topics of broad interest. The future of scholarship, the future of innovation—big ideas and big issues. What skills are required to foster a culture of innovation? What is the role of the liberal arts and sciences in developing those skills?

In many of the sessions and workshops the focus was clearly on student outcomes. The Degree Qualifications Profile is a big idea. Is it perfect? No. Does it mesh well with the assessment of general education at various scales? Perhaps not. Personally, I found the attention on meaningful assignments to be useful. Often, as courses are revised or redesigned and as new pedagogies and technologies are added to a course, the last thing revised are the assignments, if they are touched at all. Attention to assignments and sharing them across courses and instructors is a way to achieve greater coherence within a major. The lack of coherence in majors is often an issue at the upper division, where there are no tracks or concentrations and a wide range of unrelated elective offerings.

I was intrigued by a brief session on the topic of how courses might fit together. Adele Wolfson and Lee Cuba from Wellesley examined the behavior of STEM majors taking courses both inside and outside of the sciences. The study set out to determine whether there were two cultures (science and non-science) by examining the patterns of courses taken by science majors outside the sciences. They observed general modes of learning to be different, with the STEMs fields being more collaborative and the humanities and social sciences based more on interactions and discussions. They found science students to be taking courses outside the sciences for various reasons: social reasons, degree requirements, personal reasons or aspirations, expectations, and self-reflection. They coded these students' behaviors into five types —samplers, explorers, straddlers between disciplines, connections, and inverse samplers. I think three conclusions were significant. First, science students said they learned valuable skills from non-science courses. While not surprising, hearing this from students is reaffirming. Second, the more non-science courses taken by these students, the more likely they are to begin to integrate them. And third, a suggestion from Wolfson and Cuba—that students should be required to take a field other than their own major into the intermediate level because it would enhance their appreciation of their own major. These findings seem particularly relevant in regard to our students who have double majors, particularly a science and non-science major—these students often build a unique set of skills that allows them more educational and career opportunities.