Learning for the Real World
The University of Texas at Austin expects its graduates to change the world. But, in an ever-changing world, that means preparing students in ways that are mindful of where educational approaches may need to change to remain relevant and aligned with modern needs of communities, industries and families.
These days, in fields that many human ecology graduates enter, employers expect to see people who are creative and good communicators, who know a lot of science and math, who can problem-solve and who work well both independently and with teams.
But can all of that be taught effectively in just four years?
Several programs within the School of Human Ecology are finding out. Faculty in public health, textiles and apparel and human development and family sciences have all begun engaging in major initiatives to redesign curricula within the school.
Having started over a year ago, the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences is the furthest along in its planning. Leaders there, including the faculty and several committed alumni serving on a special task force, are mapping what gets taught in the department’s classes onto real-world issues for children and families, from education to health.
“We are addressing the question, ‘What is the goal of having a scientific understanding of children and families?’” said department chair Stephen Russell, Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development.
To begin with, the task force looked at universal skills students would need going out into the world. Many graduates will head into the medical field, for example, to become doctors, nurses and physical therapists.
“We want to add more information about how families and individuals interact with the health system and how important development in all its many forms influences people’s physical and mental health,” said Marci Gleason, associate professor of HDFS and faculty leader of the redesign effort. “One of our most fundamental theories as a field is that every individual is embedded in multiple systems and they all inform each other. People don’t exist in vacuums.”
Gleason says much of what’s taught in any redesigned curricula will build on longstanding strengths of the department, like its ability to incorporate the unique perspectives of diverse people, their situations and histories. For students who hope to go on to human-services work, community-improvement efforts or patient-centered medical practices, like pediatrics or family medicine, these lessons are crucial.
“I really do think our students are going to make the world a better place, and they are going to do it by seeing people as a whole and seeing the systems they fit into,” Gleason said. “Our students tell us they are better able to communicate with people who are different from them, and they are more likely to consider other people’s perspectives. There is nothing we want to hear more, as faculty.”
The redesign is about making degree programs easier for students to navigate and giving them more flexibility on their path to a degree. Leaders are one year into a five-year curriculum redesign effort, but the department was starting in a good place.
“Leaders in the college want experiential learning in every department and we already have an experiential learning program,” Gleason said, referring to the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory student observers, volunteers and interns, as one example. “We were a little ahead of the game in that way.”
New courses to provide a broader view of the field, and concentrations that are optional, as opposed to required, provide the flexibility students demand.
The changes also will allow more students from outside the major to take courses within it. Considering that 87 percent of eventual human development and family sciences majors start out as a different major, the new plan calls for more lower-division courses so that more students can find out early on about the option.
Russell, Gleason and the task force hope that a streamlined degree path that’s easier for students to navigate and also more relevant will set a template for other departments preparing for their own curricular restructuring efforts. Department leaders are working now to standardize content so that, across sections and semesters, students will learn topics that matter most for life after graduation.
As Russell said, “We are making an explicit shift away from faculty members thinking about ‘my class’ and toward ‘our curriculum.’”