New general education requirements emphasize bold interdisciplinary themes, global engagement

Undergraduates will benefit from new, forward-looking general-education requirements. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.

A new forward-looking approach to education will prepare undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz for life in the complex, information-rich environment of the 21st century.

"These requirements help set us apart," said linguistics professor Jaye Padgett. "'We're taking an intellectual stand and giving our students the skills necessary for today's world."

Building on the UCSC's longstanding commitment to undergraduate education, the Academic Senate endorsed revisions to the general-education curriculum--the core coursework required of all students. The new requirements emphasize interdisciplinary themes that create opportunities for students to consider and analyze complex issues from multiple perspectives.

The new general-education requirements have been tailored to prepare students for the pressures and opportunities of contemporary life. New requirements include statistical reasoning courses that will give students the tools to thrive in today's media-saturated information society, and a course on cross-cultural analysis that will inform and prepare students for work and life in the "global village."

The new curriculum emphasizes engagement with the world, concern about social justice and inequity, and a willingness to try to solve society's problems. "We're trying to make links to social issues," said Padgett. "We want these requirements to be part of the reason students choose to come to UC Santa Cruz."

Padgett is chair of the Senate's Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), which led the multi-year process to overhaul the campus' undergraduate curriculum for the first time in 25 years. The revisions were approved Friday, March 6, at a special meeting of the Academic Senate. The new curriculum responds to young peoples' desire for a fresh approach to the challenges of today's fast-paced world and will prepare UCSC students to be well-rounded global citizens, said Padgett.

"We consulted with faculty, and what we heard is that they wanted to infuse the general-education requirements with new energy," said Padgett, who said he remembers feeling like a "cog in the big state university" during his own undergraduate years. "So often, general education ends up being uninspiring. We would like to do better than that."

The reforms mark a departure from what Padgett called a "cafeteria approach" to general education requirements, which mandate that students complete a certain number of courses within broad subject areas. Instead, the new approach asks students to take courses in more specific areas, providing "a more focused, intellectually defined approach to general education," said Padgett.

The requirements, which will take effect in the fall of 2010, include completion of one course each in:

. cross-cultural analysis

. ethnicity and race

. interpreting arts and media

. mathematical and formal reasoning

. scientific inquiry

. statistical reasoning

. textual analysis and interpretation

In addition, undergraduates will choose one of three perspectives courses focused on environmental awareness, human behavior, or technology and society; as well as one two-credit course on either creative process, collaborative endeavor, or service learning. The changes build on enhanced writing requirements that were approved by faculty on Feb. 18.

Already committed to the principle of interdisciplinary undergraduate education, UCSC was well-positioned to take this fresh, more topical approach to general education, said Padgett.

"A class in environmental awareness could include an engineering component to address the entrepreneurial aspects of tackling problems such as climate change," said Padgett. "We'll take a broad view of what it means to be socially engaged."

Simultaneously, the campus is embarking on a new initiative to build interdisciplinary topical clusters, or "ITCs," that will further enrich learning opportunities for undergraduates. College Eight will launch the first such cluster this fall with its sustainability-themed cluster, "Nurturing Environmental Citizenship."

Padgett sees the interdisciplinary clusters as an opportunity for departments to introduce students to fields they might not have explored, and to reinforce the value of those academic pursuits. "The first two years of study are so often taken up with getting major prerequisites done that students sometimes lose sight of why what they're studying is important to the world," he said.

The general education reforms set the stage for the ITCs, which build on the UCSC tradition of academic learning within the setting of the campus' ten residential colleges, noted Padgett. "There's a natural synergy with the colleges," he said.