Start with the Student

By Christine Sinatra. Photos by Vivian Abagiu and Brett Buchanan.

  Undergraduates in the Freshman Research Initiative are among those to benefit from experiential learning in the Colle  ge. Credit: Vivian Abagiu

Undergraduates in the Freshman Research Initiative are among those to benefit from experiential learning in the College. Credit: Vivian Abagiu

In the twentieth century, education revolved around ideas and facts students learned. Lectures and readings, well-worn methods for transferring knowledge, preceded opportunities for students to parrot back what they knew on tests. Yes, some students who achieved mastery in a subject received chances to apply lessons on a job, in research or by entering a PhD program on their way to their own academic career. Still, many students left school feeling ill-prepared for what came next. 

  Credit: Vivian Abagiu

Credit: Vivian Abagiu

A recent Gallup poll found that 15 percent of U.S. college graduates thought their undergraduate years prepared them poorly for life and work. University of Texas at Austin alumni are much more likely to indicate that their university prepared them well, according to Gallup, but room for improvement still exists. 

All university-goers learn skills, but not everyone manages to pick up those that research has found to sometimes matter most for success later in life – things like a person’s process for decision-making, ease in working with others and approach to problem-solving or setbacks. Employers demand candidates with abilities in these areas as much as content knowledge in the people they hire. 

Meanwhile, technology is transforming how people learn. Neuroscience is making new discoveries about how the brain processes information. All of this has led higher education institutions to rethink the last century’s educational approach. 

A new two-year planning process in the College of Natural Sciences, dubbed the 21st Century Education initiative, is implementing a number of student-centered changes and shifting the emphasis from what students learn about to also cover more of what they learn to be and do. 

“This is about being intentional in designing curriculum that builds those core skills,” said David Vanden Bout, associate dean for undergraduate education, “versus hoping those skills emerge organically. You could think about education as mining and trying to surface gems, or you can do as we’re doing and take more of a farming approach. You cultivate growth in every student.”

  Faculty member Kristin Harvey works with students in teams.  Credit: Vivian Abagiu.

Faculty member Kristin Harvey works with students in teams. Credit: Vivian Abagiu.

Learning by Doing

In a typical introductory statistics class, most students are freshmen – and some, between 5 and 8 percent, will quit, drop or fail the notoriously tough class. Though students consider her statistics classes challenging, Kristin Harvey has managed to bring her students’ non-completion rate down to almost zero. Students learn by getting ample practice. A project-based final exam even has class participants gathering data, running analyses, making research posters and delivering presentations of their own. 

“It’s splendid!” one student remarked in an anonymous course survey. “We take relevant data from the real world and apply different methods to extract a conclusion.” 

The 21st Century Undergraduate Education plan calls for curricular restructuring leading to more applied-learning experiences, like the one in Harvey’s class. The goal is for students to practice using reason and creative thinking the way a scientist or mathematician would. Team projects and self-directed learning also factor heavily into the strategy. This allows students, across disciplines, to gain skills in communicating, working with diverse groups, organizing tasks and operating independently and collaboratively.

“Today’s students are digital natives, accustomed to instant access to information online,” said Sarah Eichhorn, executive director of the College’s Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science (TIDES). “This challenges us to rethink STEM curriculum and really focus in on concepts, skills and habits of mind that we want to impart to students.”

Eichhorn’s team includes new STEM instruction consultants who work with departments to implement changes within coursework and degree plans. TIDES also has a new evaluation expert who is helping measure the effectiveness and impact of the new curriculum implementations in the college.

Finally, the College envisions having every student receive an immersive experiential learning opportunity as part of the curriculum. The research by Gallup found that these opportunities – from credit-bearing internships to study abroad to involvement with the college’s award-winning Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) – can have a marked impact on the well-being of graduates. 

“FRI definitely taught me time management and other life skills – especially collaboration, organization and the value of showing initiative,” said 2017 biology graduate Joe Angel Espinoza. “I also learned how to communicate complex scientific information effectively.”

Reimagining the PhD

Parallel to the undergraduate initiative, a 21st Century Graduate Education strategy also is underway. Nationwide, roughly 6 in 10 people who receive a science or math Ph.D. will work outside of academia. But as an editorial in Science magazine explained: “Graduate training in science has followed the same basic format for almost 100 years, heavily focused on producing academic researchers.” 

If that’s true, the College of Natural Sciences is bucking a century-long trend. Its latest innovations support PhD students in preparation for careers both inside and outside of higher learning. Paths to their degrees are being streamlined, with opportunities for added flexibility. Students also can delve into the learning more in select areas: from teaching to project management, from strategic leadership to science communications. 

  Graduate students are learning more skills that can be leveraged outside of academia.  Credit: Brett Buchanan.

Graduate students are learning more skills that can be leveraged outside of academia. Credit: Brett Buchanan.

Across the College, graduate students will acquire interdisciplinary “big data” skills – programming and statistics – useful in numerous fields. The Office of Graduate Education is also developing mentoring programs, boot camps, electives, assessment and planning tools and career counseling strategies to support the overall plan. 

“Graduate students are essential to our research and teaching mission in the college,” said Dan Knopf, associate dean for graduate education. “Our focus on modernizing graduate education means we are in the best possible position to compete for the top students and to prepare them to change the world.”