A course on video games that explores not just the programming involved but also seriously discusses the role of video games in society; an undergraduate degree in public policy that mixes political science courses with economics courses and even courses taught at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy – these kinds of interdisciplinary classes and degrees aren’t available this year. But over the next five years, the University will introduce more classes like these that incorporate a variety of subjects – moving away from increasingly arcane, single-subject concentrations.

The long-term goal of the University’s taskforce on multidisciplinary learning and team teaching will be to create many of these interdisciplinary courses and degrees, said associate provost Phil Hanlon, who will head up the taskforce. But in the short term, University President Mary Sue Coleman has given it the responsibility of creating three new courses and three new degrees – and she has provided the taskforce with $2.5 million over the next five years to do so.

During her State of the University address to the Senate Assembly on Monday, Coleman told the faculty they would be responsible for deciding what these classes and degrees will look like.

“I know you will lead us in fascinating directions with your ideas,” Coleman said during her speech to the faculty. “We could help students see the world from a dozen different viewpoints, all the while sitting in a single classroom.”

The taskforce is made up of 13 members and includes Hanlon, deans and professors from LSA, the School of Information and the School of Public Health and one undergraduate student. It was created a year ago to look into the possibility of team-taught classes, but only now is Coleman backing the program with money.

Hanlon said the money would be used to pay for the faculty man-hours needed to develop a curriculum and support the extra faculty and staff needed to get a new program off the ground. For example, more graduate student instructors are needed for new courses because the University wants to keep the class sizes low – one of the many barriers that faculty face when trying to develop new courses. Resources, rewards and bureaucratic issues are examples of other barriers the taskforce addressed in its report at the end of last year.

Hanlon added that some of the money would be used to help spark ideas among the faculty. The taskforce will provide small planning grants to faculty interested in coming up with proposals and will also try to facilitate what Hanlon described as “lightning proposals,” where the taskforce will gather faculty from many different disciplines and tell them to work together until they come up with a proposal.

The driving force behind creating interdisciplinary degrees and courses, Hanlon said, is to take advantage of the variety of strong programs the University has at its disposal. Instead of forcing students to get degrees in general areas of study, the University hopes to allow undergraduates to take advantage of the large number of quality programs available.

“These are topics that no one department at the University would be able to study or teach,” Hanlon said.

The idea of team teaching is not something new at the University. Ben a Van Der Pluijm, a professor of geological sciences, is the course director of a course called Global Change. Global Change has been a course at the University since 1992, and Pluijm calls it a “success.” He teaches the course – which looks at the evolution of the Earth’s environment, the causes, the potential effects and the role of humans – with three other professors from a variety of backgrounds: biology, the atmosphere and the study of fresh water.

But Pluijjm is careful to say the reason team-teaching works so well for his course is because the material demands it. The course covers a broad range of topics, making it difficult for a single professor – with a background in one area – to teach the course alone. Pluijm said he is not convinced that all courses could be team taught.

“Team teaching itself should not be something to pursue just for the sake of team teaching,” he said. “But as long as the material stays seamless, they (the students) find it enormously helpful.”

Hanlon said the taskforce hopes to look at the success of courses like Global Change when deciding how to spend its money. The money is to be distributed over five years at the discretion of the taskforce, and Hanlon said the primary goal is to have three new courses by then. He said he did not know when the first course approved by the taskforce would be available.

 

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