Exploration emphasized in UK's new required classes

UK Core program aims to encourage critical and creative thinking

lblackford@herald-leader.comDecember 19, 2011 

The students in Marty Henton's art class wear spattered smocks as they layer paint and stencil designs over their projects, but don't confuse them for virtuosos.

"I'm not, like, an artist," said Bethany Brookover, a sophomore transfer from Cincinnati, as she mixed a gold glaze over her art project. "I've never even been to an art museum before."

Given the choice, Brookover and most of her classmates might have kept it that way. But this class, Pathways to Creativity, is not an elective. It's a requirement, part of UK's new general-education-studies program, known as UK Core.

The vast, multi-year undertaking has completely revamped undergraduate requirements in an effort to better prepare students for a different world than the one students faced in the 1980s, when the last general-education-studies plan was designed.

"Our culture changes, and career opportunities change, so we have to look and see if our requirements are really meeting the needs of our students," said Ben Withers, chairman of the art department, one of many professors involved in the redesign.

UK Core is organized around four main requirements:

■ Intellectual inquiry in math, science, humanities, arts and creativity, and social and behavioral sciences.

■ Competent written, oral and visual communication skills.

■ An understanding of quantitative reasoning, including basic statistics.

■ An understanding of citizenship in a diverse world.

Students take a total of 30 credit hours from an array of departments, allowing professors to design new courses within an extremely flexible framework. For example, engineering offers a Creativity in Engineering class, and environmental sciences might look at global environmental issues.

Some of the classes can be used toward majors and toward core requirements.

"This will allow students to get to their majors more quickly," said Provost Kumble Subbaswamy, who said the program is a remarkable success.

'Learning to explore'

Henton, a lecturer in the art department, piloted her first arts and creativity class last year to see how it would work trying to teach all kinds of students about thinking in a more visual and creative way.

Her current Pathways to Creativity in the Visual Arts class has involved a series of class activities, which started with learning about the ways that people learn, whether visual, auditory or hands-on. She asked the students to construct self-portraits out of images of who they are now and their future goals.

Henton took the students to a Mac lab to see how images can be manipulated, and to the UK Art Museum.

"These students, for the first time, are learning to explore in the arts," Henton said. "They're learning to capture feelings and senses."

For a final project, Henton took her students to see the Nation of Nations art installation by Lexington artist Marjorie Guyon. The paintings — a series of figures emblazoned with phrases in numerous languages — ask viewers to contemplate the United States, and the idea of "a more perfect union."

Henton asked her students to work in groups to create their own vision of Guyon's work on similar figures but with their own interpretations of words and paint.

"I wanted them to engage with the process of making art," Henton said. "The whole idea is thinking outside the box. I hope everything they've learned here is something they'll take with them."

One of her students, Austin Truffelli, 18, said the class will help him in his major of integrated strategic communications, specifically marketing and advertising.

"This really has helped me think more creatively," he said. "And I know it's going to help me in my major, which is innovative."

Kate Topley, 20, a transfer student from Xavier University, wasn't raised looking at art, but now, she said, she could go to a museum and "see something has meaning behind it."

In her first year at UK, Topley said, she's also enjoying another UK Core class, Global Environmental Issues, which "makes you realize what's going on, and it makes you care more."

One of the ideas behind UK Core is to help students become more informed and caring world citizens.

'Thinking deeply'

Bill Rayens, an assistant provost for general education, has worked on the overall UK Core program and helped design a statistical-reasoning course, a keystone class that serves 4,200 students a year.

As people are constantly bombarded with information, they have to be able to make sense of it, particularly numbers, he said.

Rayens leaves short lectures to videos, which the students watch on their own, and devotes class time to activities with statistical purposes. One exercise he designed has students flipping coins, recording the proportions of heads and tails, and then building a Lego structure based on the results.

"What they build is a bell curve," Rayens said. "What they're illustrating is central-limit theorem, which teaches them margin of error, something they hear in the media all the time."

Of course, for all the new classes, there are plenty that sound familiar to older ears, including Intro to Literature, Intro to Anthropology and General Physics.

What's not so familiar is the old writing class that now has a digital component, helping students be as adept at making videos as they are at writing papers.

And while some classes might still have lectures, there are always smaller breakout classes of 25 or fewer students.

The difference will be a more sophisticated approach to learning, said Mike Mullen, associate provost for undergraduate education.

"One of the goals is to have students think critically about issues, and to gain the ability to work through those issues by turning them around and looking at them from all angles," Mullen said. "We want them to be thinking deeply about both questions and answers, rather than simply absorbing facts."

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