Course changes focus on global issues

University officials are discussing a plan to increase the school’s impact on issues like food sustainability and climate change.

Taylor Nachtigal

 

The University of Minnesota wants future students to graduate with the skills to solve major global issues.

Although details behind the changes aren’t clear and their implementation hinges on the Board of Regents’ approval, the University is considering significantly altering its curriculum to strengthen its focus on addressing the world’s greatest problems.

The changes — part of the University’s recently released 10-year strategic plan — could range anywhere from adding new minors to offering more seminar classes, with the goal of using research and classwork to tackle relevant global problems, like climate change and creating sustainable food systems.

“These are large problems, which may have a local dimension but are also clearly extending beyond our local range to be global or societal problems,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson.

The goal is to have University students collaborate with businesses and others outside of the school’s community to tackle these real-world problems, Hanson said.

“Our faculty is so engaged in research and in the communities [that] we need to make sure that students get the benefits of those opportunities,” said sociology professor Chris Uggen, who serves on one of the strategic plan’s issue teams.

Changes to curriculum could take many forms, including a revamp of undergraduate minor offerings that would specifically address global issues.

New seminar classes that would provide students with an in-depth look at issues are also on the table.

The most detailed option in the plan includes theme-based coursework in which students would take specific classes related to one global issue for each of their four years at the University.

This format would start with a seminar for first-year students and include “skills courses” focused on homing in on people and problem-solving skills during undergraduate sophomore and junior years.

The curriculum would end with a capstone-type course in which students would put their skills to use by working with organizations outside the University.

It’s still unknown whether these courses would be required or optional.

Hanson said the goal of the potential curriculum changes is for students to have a broader education.

“I see it most beneficial … [at the] capstone stage,” Uggen said. “That is the moment when students are really consolidating everything they have learned and making those connections.”

The program may begin by implementing some of the changes in the University Honors Program before expanding throughout all colleges, according to the plan.

Educational and developmental psychology senior Valkyrie Jensen said she would like to see a combination of the ideas in action, especially the seminars.

“If we managed to get the liberal education requirements to integrate the grand challenges, that would be incredible,” she said.

Jensen also serves on the University’s Student Senate.

While discussion so far has mainly involved administrators and faculty members, Uggen said the student voice is key.

“I think that in many ways, it is up to the students and what works,” he said. “We will adapt and change and make sure we are delivering a really great education.”

While none of these ideas have officially received approval, administrators hope to move forward with their discussions if the Board of Regents signs off on the plan next month.

Major curriculum alterations involve many different players, Hanson said, so the plan is complicated, and the school still needs to take many steps before it can make any tangible changes.

“Any change that is campus-wide requires long, hard discussions. We expect that to last a little while,” she said.

A period allowing students, staff and faculty members to make comments on the plan will end Thursday, before regents take official action on it, Hanson said.

But so far, she said, it’s been “well-received.”

“This is a bold and exciting plan,” Uggen said. “It isn’t the same cookie-cutter plan that other universities have cranked out.”