University of Kentucky professors will test drive the first wave of classes in UK's most ambitious and sweeping education overhaul in decades starting this spring.
About 20 new pilot courses will help educators test how well they achieve the goals of UK's newly rewritten core requirements for undergraduate students, known as general education. These pilot classes represent the first fruits of a revamping that began five years ago and is tentatively slated to take full effect starting with freshmen who arrive in fall 2011.
The goals of the new curriculum are lofty: relate subjects to each other and to everyday life, enhance students' analytical thinking and communication skills and boost "global literacy."
"What we're literally doing is we're redefining what a bachelor's degree means," said David Randall, a physiology professor and chairman of the University Senate.
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Faculty view the new courses as 100-level classes with a kick.
"It's getting courses to work more in line with a 21st century mentality," said Tony Hardin, associate professor of set and lighting design in the theater department. "We're really focusing on communication and preparing students for a multi-lingual, multi-faceted world and society."
For instance, Hardin is developing a class, which he's dubbed Creativity 101, for the trial run this spring that uses a series of projects to tap into students' research ability, communication skills and artistic side.
In one assignment, Hardin will give students a photograph of a landscape around Lexington and ask them to show what it might have looked like 200 years ago.
"They'll have to research that geographic location: What kind of trees were there, had the land been cleared, were there houses?" Hardin said.
Then students describe what they found by drawing, using Photoshop or writing, depending on their strengths.
It's a far cry from the typical introduction to fine arts class that would satisfy a humanities requirement under the current general education system.
"The gen-ed courses used to be this laundry list of classes that needed to be covered," Hardin said. "That's the way people thought of them — 'I have to get them out of the way.'"
Small classes, big lessons
Starting in 2004, UK faculty called for revamping general education requirements, known as the University Studies Program, which has been around since 1986. It requires 36 to 45 credit hours in 10 traditional areas of study, such as math, foreign language, logic, writing and sciences.
The new structure, which the University Senate finalized in May, requires students to take a total of 30 credit hours (10 classes) in four major categories. Generally, students need 120-135 credit hours for most undergraduate degrees.
The new gen-ed categories have names that hint at the system's ambitious and over-arching educational goals. They include intellectual inquiry — with subcategories that cover math, science, social sciences, humanities and arts — communications, quantitative reasoning and citizenship.
"That's a fairly radical thing for most universities, even small liberal arts colleges. But for a research university to undertake this on this scale and this seriously, I think that's the wave of the future," UK Provost Kumble Subbaswamy said. "Other universities are looking at us to see how we're doing it."
The opportunity to re-write courses that in some cases have gotten "stale," has reinvigorated many faculty members and will likely please students, said Susan M. Roberts, chairman of the geography department.
"This, I think, does give flexibility on both ends — to the students and faculty," she said. "You've got this chance in the beginning to be really creative. For the faculty that's really exciting."
For students, the new requirements will soak up fewer credit hours and come with the promise of smaller classes, she said.
Lowering class sizes was one of the demands faculty have made. Even large lecture courses will be supplemented by breakout groups under the reform plan.
But the price tag for hiring as many as 50 new lecturers, as well as graduate students to teach courses or breakout groups, will be $4.5 million a year, Subbaswamy said.
Although it may be tricky to find that extra money in the next two-year budget, Subbaswamy noted that it amounts to less than 1 percent of the $600 million UK spends on academics each year.
He and President Lee T. Todd have committed to make it happen. "It's priority number one," Subbaswamy said.
In with the new
The time line hasn't been set in stone, but UK aims to roll out the new general education system — it will be named in a contest this spring — in fall 2011.
The first batch of courses inspired by the overhaul will pop up on students' spring semester scheduling books in November.
Subbaswamy said the pilot courses will give professors a chance to see if the newly structured classes, some of which are retooled versions of current ones, achieve the new goals.
Among other things, they'll be looking to see if students can effectively deliver messages, critique arguments, understand differences in cultures and use logic and math to solve "real-world problems."
In the geography department, Roberts is drafting a "global dynamics" course that will compare countries with what Roberts calls "basic needs" statistics, such as life expectancy, income and infant mortality rates.
As with current economic geography courses, students will be asked to track connections they have to other countries through clothes or products made overseas.
"In the eyes of the people who designed the new (general education requirements), they had in mind the notion of a UK student as a global citizen," Roberts said. "This course will be aimed at getting students to understand the basic geography, the basic patterns of global differences and interconnection in order that they better understand their own role in the world."
Adam Johnson, a sophomore math major from Frankfort, said he was envious that the new generation of required courses will focus on understanding the context of current events.
"I don't feel like people have an understanding of what it takes to be a good citizen," he said. "It's harder than people think."