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Confessions of a curriculum geek

August 23, 2006, 9:16 pm

Now that we’re just days away from the start of the new semester, I am seeing more and more of my colleagues who disappeared for the summer to various undisclosed locations. When they asked me what I did over the summer, and I tell them I split my time between teaching calculus and designing a dual-degree engineering major, they have all been very surprised. And when they see just how far along the engineering program has come — from vitrually nothing at the end of the previous school year to nearly ready to implement now — they are kind of shocked. My dean today stopped me and congratulated me on the work I did, and I said it was no problem because it was fun. "You had fun doing this?" he said. Yes, I admit it — I’m a curriculum geek.

Why has this project been so much fun for me? I think it’s because from the moment the idea surfaced, nearly a year ago, I had an idea of what the end product would look like, and it excited me very much. At my previous institution, where we had a dual-degree agreement with a different large university, we had a class of freshmen come in the year I started. They were mostly engineering people, with some math education and mathematics thrown in. They were hands-down the brightest, geekiest, funniest, most enjoyable group of students I’ve had — and I got to have them for four years! They loved science; they loved math; they loved technology; they loved geek stuff. They were all in it together, and all progressing through the same daily grind together. And despite the overwhelming anti-intellectual attitude at that particular campus, they had an impact.

And that’s why this program is exciting — why creating any program is exciting: There is a great power to change the culture of a campus that is held by cohesive groups of like-minded students. That group might be a student organization centered around a single idea. It doesn’t have to be an informal organization at all. But it’s especially noticeable among a group of students all sharing a single major, if they band together and form a community. People notice communities. College students especially are greatly attracted to any kind of aggregate in which the members feel like they belong. When that aggregate is a group of students who are all sharing the same intellectual and academic experience — and they are enjoying it, and it’s both an extension of and a vector for their own personalities — the impact that can take place on how a campus ascribes meaning to things is enormous.

So I imagine my campus being populated by a group of geeky types — engineering people and their sympathizers — coming in each year, moving up through the ranks and creating a coherent legacy in the student population. I can see the impact as this little community gets formed and grows through the years, changing the minds of the students on this campus, getting them to see that that those people find interesting — math, science, technology — really is interesting for everybody. And slowly, our campus culture begins to separate itself from the stereotypical campus, focused on seemingly everything but learning and the life of the mind.

Maybe that’s all very optimistic and idealistic, but that’s what I see in the future, and that’s why I spend half my summer studying credit transfer agreements and internship requirements and so on. It’s a rare thing that gets an academician moving toward idealism and not cynicism!

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