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UNH Offers Rare Approach to Trendy Common Course

Release Date:
8/15/2013 12:00 AM
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August 15, 2013

Sustainability, features

WEST HAVEN, CONN. --- This fall, the University of New Haven is launching its first-ever common course, “Sustainability and Ideas for the Future.” The course, created around a shared intellectual experience, reflects a growing trend in colleges and universities nationwide, but UNH’s cluster approach is rare, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU).

First-year experiences and seminars, often shaped around navigating university life and developing college-level critical thinking skills, have become common at colleges around the country. They play an important role in preparing students for college life. According to a study published by the AACU, common courses or shared intellectual experiences on college campuses have grown considerably in the last decade, and they help foster student success and persistence.

Yet while most common courses at colleges focus on succeeding in college, the UNH course will focus – from the very first week of college -- on sustainability as it pertains to the environment. The students in the course and 19 tenured faculty members teaching it will explore questions such as: Can we meet the challenge of feeding nine billion people? Is the city sustainable?  If our energy source is not sustainable after a certain point in time, what new ideas can we come up with?

The approach is catching on around the country. Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and Texas State University have similar programs, and the University of Indianapolis is developing a shared intellectual experience that will culminate in a capstone project.

Todd Jokl, UNH’s director of the common course and associate professor of art and design, noted that having a common course or intellectual experience with this kind of cluster approach and wide-ranging faculty support is unusual.  He said it speaks volumes about how UNH wants to ensure students have valuable interactions with the full-time faculty and an outstanding academic experience from their first day of college.

Terrel Rhodes, vice president for the Office of Quality, Curriculum and Assessment at the AACU, said courses like UNH’s are a promising concept and decidedly less common than first-year experience seminars.

The UNH course came about after UNH President Steven H. Kaplan challenged the faculty to think about how they could create a common educational experience at UNH. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Lourdes Alvarez initiated a campus-wide faculty task force to propose creative approaches to the president’s challenge and shape the course. 

“We have a tremendous opportunity here at UNH to do very exciting things with strong support from the administration,” said Alvarez. “These are some of the pressing questions of our time, and in this course our students and faculty will have the chance to explore them together.” 

Charlie Boynton, an associate professor of finance, said the course will likely have far-reaching effects. “My primary hope for the course is to spur critical thinking for the first-year students,” he said. “If we are successful here there is a natural multiplier effect and students will be more likely to be successful in their subsequent classes and careers.”

Students in the course will choose from three sections or clusters:  the Future of the American City, the Future of Energy or the Future of Food. Each cluster will deal with interdisciplinary issues by having professors from different disciplines focus on common sustainability problems.

“The energy section for example combines an historian, an engineer, a biologist, a STEM educator (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and a political scientist-national security specialist,” said Edmund Todd, associate professor of history.

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 on the campus of Yale University in cooperation with Northeastern University, UNH moved to its current West Haven campus in 1960. The University operates a satellite campus in Tuscany, Italy, and offers programs at several locations throughout Connecticut and in New Mexico and California. UNH provides its students with a unique combination of a solid liberal arts education and real-world, hands-on career and research opportunities. The University enrolls approximately 6,400 students, including nearly 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates – the majority of whom reside in University housing. Through its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Tagliatela College of Engineering, and College of Lifelong & eLearning, UNH offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. UNH students have access to more than 50 study abroad programs worldwide and its student-athletes compete in 16 varsity sports in the NCAA Division II’s highly competitive Northeast-10 Conference.