Goal Two: Distinctive Learning Experiences

The faculty of the College of Sciences and Arts believe that their primary contribution to the goal of offering distinctive learning experiences is the array of academic programs, many of them deeply interdisciplinary and innovative, developed over the past two decades. These programs balance foundational instruction for all students with opportunities for advanced study and research by majors and graduate students, all within a defining framework of Michigan Tech as a “technological university.” Obviously, teaching matters in pursuit of this goal, and the college is proud that CSA faculty received six consecutive teaching awards in the associate/full professor category from 2002-2008. But while devoting attention to experience-based learning and research opportunities, the college considers its contributions to this goal’s second element—supporting intellectual diversity and the worldview required for the 21st century—to be especially important because language, culture, communication, and other targeted programs advancing this goal reside largely within CSA. In addition, the programs supporting Goal 2 also provide the primary foundation for the achievement of Goal 1 of the strategic plan.

In 2010, the college believes that its primary task is shifting from the program-building efforts of the past 15 years to fine-tuning the academic offerings and degree programs already in place. (See Appendices 6 & 7 which document the numbers of majors and degrees awarded.) To be sure, the three newest departments (Visual & Performing Arts, Cognitive & Learning Sciences, and Exercise Science, Health & Physical Education) must complete their academic programs. A new doctoral program in human factors (Cognitive & Learning Sciences—approved spring 2009), is part of this effort, while faculty in Visual & Performing Arts are strengthening the undergraduate major in performance. VPA also is working to develop the BA side of its paired BS/BA programs in sound design and in media and entertainment technology. For three years, Exercise Science has explored the feasibility of launching a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program, a clinical program that would play a major role in the university’s emerging emphasis on health.3 In more established departments, however, the primary task is to continuously review and revise existing majors. Thus the interdisciplinary program in atmospheric sciences, which involves several CSA departments, continues to evolve, while the Humanities Department has moved vigorously over the past 15 months to recruit new faculty in the area of new digital media. Social Sciences is poised to extend its environmental policy program to the doctoral level, while Computer Science is actively recruiting to enhance its expertise in the broad field of human-computer interaction and computer applications.

The College believes its strength resides in the wide range of disciplines within which its students and faculty operate, even as we seek to lower further the barriers between disciplines and academic units. Thus faculty in physics and social sciences provide the leadership in the undergraduate minor in nanoscale science and engineering. Similarly, the SFHI hiring initiative of the past three years has brought to campus faculty in with interdisciplinary research interests in environmental sustainability and computational research, with efforts in the areas of health and transportation underway in 2010-11. A cross-disciplinary mindset has long existed in the College of Sciences and Arts, thanks in part to half of the departments being interdisciplinary by definition and structure.4 The result is an ability to provide the necessary disciplinary foundation for majors, while encouraging students to apply their knowledge and learning to grappling with challengingly complex inter- and multi-disciplinary questions.

The College’s plans in this area amount to the sum of the various individual strategic plan updates from every department. These plans reinforce the sense of deep commitment to our students. CSA wishes to highlight the fact that many of our experiential education programs adopt a different approach than the Enterprise activities, Coop experiences, or senior design projects so prominent in the College of Engineering. CSA departments certainly are represented on the list of Enterprise projects (Computer Science’s Huskygames project, for example), but a more typical approach in the natural and social sciences is to draw students into faculty research projects in their laboratories or in the field. CSA places emphasis upon such research experiences for undergraduates (REUs), whether funded by outside agencies such as the NSF or the university’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF). Departments prominently involved in such activities include Physics, Chemistry, Exercise Science, Biological Science, and Social Sciences. Field work has been a long-time fixture of the educational programs in Biological Sciences—which takes wonderful advantage of the living laboratory of the Great Lakes and the Upper Peninsula—and Social Sciences, whose summer archeology field school has taken place all over the UP and as far afield as Alaska, New York, and the Caribbean. Similarly the Rozsa and McArdle Theatres provide essential teaching laboratories for many students in Visual & Performing Arts. Finally, the Humanities and Social Sciences Departments devote significant attention to providing students with the language and communication skills and the analytical tools required for operating outside the United States. Taken together these and other efforts bring faculty and students together and are the best way for CSA students to gain an early and immersive sense of what it means to work in their chosen fields of study and professions, and to be successful in the global environment of contemporary society.

For most CSA departments, the primary challenge they face in developing and sustaining such programs lies in the need to balance the delivery of distinctive programs and course for majors with the need to provide foundational courses and upper division electives in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities for other majors. The acceptance of such a varied mission is a hallmark of the faculty within the college, as we seek always to prove that teaching and scholarship are complementary and reinforcing. Appendix 8 indicates the college’s enrollment projections for the departments and their programs, and also shows the percentage of students they teach from outside the college. If the ratio showed all non-majors, the extent of the challenge would be even more apparent.

3. This effort was halted in spring 2010 because of state and university budget uncertainty, but a change in the budget climate might allow CSA to implement such a program independently or in cooperation with other state universities.

4. Indeed, the interdisciplinary structure of half of the units in CSA means that there are few analogues at our peer institutions, complicating the process of institutional comparison. This situation is apparent in many of the unit updates found alter in this report. But the trade-off (more complicated comparison vs. lower boundaries for interdisciplinary teaching and research) seems quite acceptable.