Liberal Arts 2.0

New core curriculum looks at real-world problems through the lens of liberal arts... and vice versa.

Amy Markol '12 doesn't aspire to become a forensic scientist, but the Roanoke College sophomore spent many hours during the fall semester analyzing hypothetical crime scenes on campus. From lifting fingerprints from a crushed Coca-Cola can to swabbing blood stains from a victim's shirt for comparison against "suspect" samples, the psychology major engaged in crime-solving techniques most of us only observe on TV shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Law and Order." She quickly learned that bringing justice to victims in real life isn't as easy as it's sometimes portrayed on camera.

"My lab partner and I learned that it was difficult to obtain a complete fingerprint," Markol says. "We tried multiple times, but we were never completely successful ... It was interesting to try to lift the prints, because you always see investigators dusting for prints in movies and TV shows, but you don't realize how delicate a process it is until you try it yourself."

Markol conducted the forensic tasks during the lab experiments for the course, "Chemistry and Crime," developed for Roanoke's new Intellectual Inquiry Core Curriculum. Students still learn the fundamentals of chemistry: atomic and molecular structure, chemical bonding and states of matter, for example. But these concepts are taught using the techniques crime scene investigators use, explains Dr. Gary Hollis, professor of chemistry.

"The course is taught within the context of things the students hear week in and week out on CSI and other shows that catch their interest, but to understand those concepts, you still have to know some basic science," Hollis says. "Hopefully, the more exciting context of the course will give non-science majors a greater motivation to learn. But it's still designed to give students the flavor of what scientists think, what scientists do, what world view science brings to the table."

Hollis' class is one example from nearly 80 courses in the new Intellectual Inquiry core curriculum. Typical general education programs, in which students take non-major, required courses, often leave them wondering, ‘When will I ever use this information again?' However, Roanoke's new core curriculum-which began last fall with the class of 2013-replaces the typical intro courses found at most colleges with topic-based courses that use the study of the topic to teach the theoretical context. That means students gain an understanding of how to apply the information to the issues that matter to them.

A Menu of Interesting Topics

Students can now choose from a variety of courses to fulfill each core requirement. Instead of Statistics 101, for example, students may choose the Inquiry course, "Does Gun Control Save Lives?" They'll learn how to use statistics to analyze state and national data on the effectiveness of gun control. Rather than taking an introductory psychology course, students may choose "Social Cognition" and use the methodologies of psychology to examine how thoughts, attitudes and emotions are influenced by social context.

"There's a lot of research indicating that students retain more information and learn better if they know why they're learning something-if they have some context for it," explains Dr. Adrienne Bloss, associate dean for academic affairs and general education. "Usually, the core courses are the ones you want to just cross off your list, but at Roanoke, these are the courses you want to take," says Bloss.

"I know what I want to do, which is to be a social worker," Nikkia Young '13 says. "The Marx & Ethics course ties back to sociology, even though it's an ethics course, because Marx was considered a great thinker in sociology.

Classic for Tomorrow

"This is definitely something new," says Dr. Richard Smith, vice president and dean of the College. "We have seen other colleges offer topic-based courses in their majors or interterm, but making them a cornerstone of the liberal arts' core curriculum is what is different."

"The faculty has taken the same fundamental concepts that have always been important at Roanoke," says President Michael Maxey, "and made them come alive through the topics. The fundamentals are now more relevant to students, so they can see firsthand how these important concepts are applied."

Critical thinking, creative problem solving, quantitative reasoning, and written and oral communication are at the heart of a classic liberal arts education. By helping students apply these skills to real-life problems, Roanoke's faculty and administration hope to graduate well-educated citizens who are prepared to be adaptable, critical thinkers in an ever-changing world.

The ideas that eventually launched the new Intellectual Inquiry core curriculum began nearly a decade ago when Roanoke's administration and faculty began considering new and more effective ways to introduce freshmen to college life, including a strong intellectual component to prepare them for the next four years of challenging academic work, explains Bloss.

Roanoke's Intellectual Inquiry core curriculum, approved in May 2008, integrates skills and knowledge across disciplines, incorporating ideals considered to be cornerstones of a liberal arts education: critical thinking, creative problem solving, and quantitative reasoning, along with written and oral communication.
This year's entering students will complete the entire Inquiry curriculum. While upperclassmen may take some classes from the Inquiry curriculum, their academic program still falls under the old general education requirements, keeping them on track to graduate on time.

During their first year at Roanoke, students take two first-year seminars designed to introduce them to the fundamentals of a liberal arts education. The first semester course, "Intellectual Inquiry," focuses on critical thinking and writing skills. The second semester course, "Living an Examined Life," emphasizes ethics and values, as well as written and oral communication. Again, these and other courses in the curriculum are available in a broad range of topics, allowing students to study these concepts in subjects that interest them.

Smith says the focus on the "active pursuit of intellectual questioning and development" distinguishes Roanoke's core curriculum from general education curricula offered at other institutions.

"This curriculum will give students more opportunities and more motivation for serious intellectual engagement from their first semester on campus," Smith says. "That engagement and motivation, coupled with the breadth of inquiry required by the curriculum, will give students a richer context in which to choose the major best suited for their passions and talents and a stronger foundation from which to undertake the deeper inquiries required in our majors."

Writing Across the Curriculum

Roanoke's previous general education program was structured so most freshmen took two semesters of writing taught by English faculty. Under Intellectual Inquiry, writing skills are emphasized across all Inquiry courses, which are taught by faculty from all disciplines.

"The idea isn't just that students receive an inoculation about writing in their freshman year and that's supposed to make them good writers," Hollis says. "We want writing incorporated in all of their courses ... [Even the first-year seminar is] no longer just a writing course. It's topic-focused now, but one of the major skills that we use to teach that topic is writing."

This new approach allows students to practice writing in all kinds of applications. Think about a chemistry major, for example. Most people understand that it's imperative for any scientist to understand the basics of their specialty and to be capable of conducting scientific research. But few consider that a successful scientist also must write effective papers detailing his or her results and conveying the implications of those findings.

"You can be the best scientist in the world," Hollis says, "but if you can't communicate your results, to what end is it?"
Professor Deb Selby, a faculty member in English, oversees the curriculum's oral communication piece, helping faculty learn to teach and evaluate those skills. The new Inquiry curriculum calls for a deliberate approach to teaching students the elements of delivering an effective oral presentation.

"We want to add that kind of explicit material to teach people to communicate more effectively," Selby says. "To discuss, to present, to negotiate conflict-there are all kinds of ways that we communicate verbally and nonverbally with people that are critical to functioning in our lives."

Nurturing Good Values

Both the old general education requirement and the new Inquiry curriculum help students explore moral and ethical issues. While this focus may derive partly from Roanoke's Lutheran tradition, getting students to reflect on the good life also is an essential component of the liberal arts tradition, says Dr. Ned Wisnefske, Schumann Professor of Lutheran Theology.

"There's an abiding concern that the teaching of ethics is an essential component to being a good citizen," Wisnefske says. "I think it's incumbent upon us to help kids reflect critically about the full moral dimension of life."

The first-year seminar course, "Living an Examined Life," is offered by faculty from a variety of academic areas to give students an understanding of how ethical inquiry is examined in different fields. In Wisnefske's spring 2010 course, "The Moral of the Story," for example, students read narratives written by slaves and other people held in captivity. He hopes to engage students in reflections about the moral questions raised by these experiences and help them make connections with the religious and philosophical traditions of the Western world. Other values-centered courses explore ethics in communication, business ethics and society's perceptions of mental illness.

"The past courses in ethics tended to be more theoretical in terms of raising questions about what might we do and how ought we live," Wisnefske says. "Now, you'll see real life questions posed in contexts that are alive in these various disciplines. It's a different way of seeing ethics questions-not just as abstract questions, but how they are actually posed and addressed in real-life contexts."

Quantitative Reasoning

Another goal of the core curriculum is to instill within students a grasp of quantitative reasoning-the ability to interpret numerical data and apply that information to real world problems. For Dr. Jeffrey Spielman, professor of mathematics, the new core curriculum has given the chance to teach statistics within the context of social justice, an issue he cares about deeply. The course, "Statistical Reasoning for Social Justice," teaches students to apply statistical techniques to concepts such as poverty, discrimination and ethnic diversity.

"I hope the students will understand what quantitative reasoning is, rather than just trying to memorize a bunch of formulas and plug them into the right place at the right time," Spielman says. "They'll be able to explain what's being used, think through the problems and set up their own solutions."

Spielman is enthusiastic about this new method of teaching statistics and says that during the fall semester, he learned along with his students. His course moves beyond simply computing formulas. Students have several weekly writing assignments, which are designed to improve their understanding of quantitative reasoning.

Next year Spielman hopes to link his statistics course to a sociology Inquiry course, "In Pursuit of Social Justice," taught by Dr. Daniel Sarabia, assistant professor of sociology. Students would enroll in both classes, with Spielman's course focusing more on the quantitative reasoning side and Sarabia emphasizing qualitative analysis. By connecting the two courses, students could move beyond the numerical data to develop a grasp of the theoretical explanations behind the issues, providing a more balanced perspective of social justice issues.

"Part of what I really think is valuable about this interest in collaboration," Sarabia says, "is to demonstrate to students the value of an interdisciplinary approach, which provides holism. It leads to a more complete vision of a particular social issue or social problem."

For Ben Calhoun '13, his first Inquiry course, "The World of Tomorrow," taught by Sarabia, was a transformative experience. When he first enrolled in the course, the environmental policy major was concerned that it would be more science fiction and less applicable to real life. He was simply checking off the first of many course requirements. By the end of the fall semester, however, Calhoun spoke enthusiastically about the various classroom discussions, especially the topic of Utopia, the ideal society. The course challenged him, he says, to use the next three years at Roanoke to figure out what he believes the future should be and his role in changing the world.

"I think the class has changed my life," Calhoun says. "I've really let loose on everything I think society should be and am focused on what I can give to make a difference."