This semester, there are three classes within the 300-level general education courses for juniors and seniors. These classes can be taken to fulfill the general education cluster or as electives as part of a pilot program. Since the 2016-17 academic year, these courses have aimed to facilitate higher cognitive learning.
“It enhances the classroom discussion but also improves student learning because you’re sitting there with your peers who are coming from different disciplines and have different answers and knowledge,” Margaret Mulrooney, associate vice provost of general education, said. “That’s really what employers are looking for.”
The inspiration for the 300-level courses came from the general education department’s program review, which occurs every 10 years. Professors can propose potential course topics to the general education department.
Physics professor Harold Butner teaches the Physics of Science Fiction, a 300-level course that looks at choices used by science fiction authors and how they influence a story. The ultimate goal is to help students analyze, develop and improve their critical thinking skills. He’s used clips from shows such as Futurama and Star Trek to illustrate various concepts.
“I have in my class students who don’t have a background in astronomy or lasers — students come from all across the curriculum,” Butner said. “It gives me the freedom to think how am I going to introduce this topic, say black holes, in a way that gets across the critical information for people to think about how it’s being used in the story.”
Butner appreciates how this course expands upon the opportunities in a 100-level course. Instead of simply introducing topics, students are beginning to pull ideas together in a way that freshmen wouldn’t necessarily begin to do. Students are able to draw from their own experience across their curriculums and majors.
“What I’ve learned the most is that my students can often answer questions in ways that I did not anticipate that are brilliant answers,” Butner said. “That is the most exciting part of the course for me.”
Junior health science major Calli Dukas took SCOM 318, Communication and Social Media, last spring semester. She took this elective as a transfer student with enough credits to qualify for a 300-level class.
“This course was taking your base knowledge and applying it to things. You could engage in a conversation even if you didn’t understand all of the terminology,” Dukas said. “You notice that in 100-level classes you get maybe half of the students to participate. At the 300-levels everyone was very engaged and willing to participate.”
Another class being taught this semester is 3D Printing in the Creative Community by professor Daniel Robinson. It’s a studio art class where students are exposed to 3D modeling and printing.
When students first come into this class, Robinson says a students first response is “I don’t know where to start.” His response is to tap into what you’re already interested in, whether it’s art, biology, chemistry, business or political science.
“I encourage all of the students to take what you know,” Robinson said. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. What artists do is take what they see and experience, and how they’re affected by the world, and through their creative process, transform that into something that communicates those ideas to the world.”
Robinson says he appreciates the creative freedom that this class has allowed for his students. It’s uncommon in a general education experience that students get to physically make things and interact in a small class, according to Robinson.
“I think the 300-level GenEd takes what can sometimes seems onerous and obligatory experience and makes it into something different and engaging and hopefully enriching as a faculty member and student,” Robinson said. “This is an augmentation that is really valuable.”
For Mulrooney, these courses aren’t changing the GenEd program, but it’s part of a larger strategic renewal. To further expand the program, faculty and student awareness about these courses is essential.
“We already have a great program, we just want to make it better and reflect some of the changes we’ve seen in the past 20 years,” Mulrooney said. “This is an important improvement in how we prepare undergraduates for success. We already do a great job — but we’re JMU, we always want to do better.”
Contact Matthew Sasser at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.