New curriculum seeks big ideas

November 04, 2004, vol. 31, no. 5
By Diane Luckow

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What is the role of monsters and monstrosities in our society? How are physics and music related? How are humans affecting the evolution and diversity of life on earth? How can we use economics to better understand politics and government?

These are all big ideas. They're also some of the courses being considered in order to fulfill the university's new undergraduate curriculum requirements for breadth courses - courses that give students a broad awareness of a subject and an understanding of the interconnections between ideas.

The new curriculum will come into effect for new students enrolling in September 2006. To graduate, they must take at least six credit hours of writing-intensive courses, six credit hours of quantitative-reasoning instruction and 18 credit hours in designated breadth courses, including six credits in the humanities, six credits in the sciences and six credits in the social sciences. They must also take six credits in undesignated breadth courses outside of their majors.

Tackling the logistics of this undertaking is a big deal. Sarah Dench, newly appointed as director of university curriculum, already feels the pressure. “Although fall 2006 sounds like a long way off, it's not,” she says. “We have to move quickly to get new courses through the departmental levels, the support groups, the task force and senate.”

There is also the housekeeping to consider - courses must be ready for classroom scheduling by February 2006 and for publishing in the academic calendar by late spring. And Dench must also continue to work with colleges to assess breadth-designated college courses for university-transfer students.

To accommodate student demand, there will need to be many new seats created in breadth courses for fall 2006 at SFU. Fortunately, many existing courses in the social sciences and humanities already meet the breadth criteria but must receive approval as such. The sciences and applied sciences, however, are another matter.

“We don't currently have a lot of science courses designed for non-science majors,” notes Andrew Beckenbach, professor of biology. “Creating science courses with no prerequisites and without a lab requirement for non-science major students is something that I think most of science has neglected, except perhaps for the math department.”

That's where the big idea courses fit in well. They can prominently feature science but also cut across several disciplines. Take a suggested music/physics course, for example.

Associate physics professor Mike Hayden is considering developing a course in collaboration with North Vancouver musician Jay Knutson, a founding member of a well-known Celtic group called Spirit of the West.

The course goal would be to look at the close relationship between physics and music and, at the same time, teach non-science students some of the elementary ideas that are important in physics.

Imparting big science ideas to social sciences and humanities students is a tough one, agrees Leah Bendell-Young, a biology professor and a member of the breadth support group.

“These are big concepts to expose students to in first and second year - what's really good about this is that we're trying to make them different from standard entrance courses and spark these kids into different ways of thinking.”

To encourage faculty to consider new breadth courses, the curriculum project has funds available for course development, release from teaching duties, and for additional instructional resources.

Economics professor Krishna Pendakur received a course release this semester to create and offer a pilot breadth course called economics and government.

“It's a useful course for all students rather than just those who want to learn economics,” explains Pendakur.

“It's for students who want to understand why there's a government, what governments are good at and not good at and what markets are good at and not good at.”

“I really think that we have an opportunity here to add to the excitement of undergraduate education,” says Len Berggren, chair of the breadth support group.

“University education should be exciting and many of our courses already are. This is an attempt to identify those course that already have the breadth that makes them exciting and to promote a few new ones.”

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