When I was an undergraduate biology major, I had to take Fortran 77. It was the language of the day for computer programming, and it was called "77" for the year it was developed (Yes, I'm dating myself). Fortunately, my instructor was a visionary. On the first day of class, he told us, "There are so many languages on the horizon; you may not ever actually use this particular one but you do need to understand the logic behind it." He was right. I never needed to master Fortran, but I did need a foundational understanding of computer programming. I've built on the logic skills I acquired in his class throughout my career.
Now, fast forward to 2006 or so at UNLV. Like so many large research universities, we required our students to fulfill a slate of general education requirements before they turned their tassels. This fulfilled one goal of a university -- to turn out "well-rounded" graduates. So all students had to take a math, a science, and miscellaneous civic and literature courses.
Our approach at the time was typical of major universities, but we knew we could do better. So we started by surveying.
Students grumbled: I'm a dance major; why do I need science? They didn't feel they were gaining real skills by taking an assortment of classes unrelated to their fields. They also told us that they needed a clearer pathway toward graduation and more guidance on what to take and when.
Faculty grumbled: Gen ed? What's that got to do with me? If students showed up in their classes unable to write a scientific research paper, they pointed to the English department. Whose job was it to teach the difference between a Wikipedia entry and a peer research journal, anyway?
And national employers and local economic development leaders noted that universities in general did not emphasize the skills they most needed in professional hires. They needed new hires grounded in the fundamentals of their field, of course. But they also sought employees who had developed critical thinking and strong writing skills. They want employees with some understanding of global issues and an ability to work with people from various cultures.
We took on the arduous task of breaking down that old, disjointed model. We launched the new general education program last fall and will continually tweak it to keep pace with the changing needs of our students. It is not hyperbole to say that what we did was revolutionary among major research institutions. It's the kind of curriculum you'd see at an elite liberal arts school. And it's been held up by the American Association of Colleges & Universities as a model program.
All UNLV students now have a clear and efficient progression to follow toward graduation. The courses connect with and build on one another to ensure specific learning outcomes, such as creative presentation skills and an ability find, analyze, and apply new information. We've replaced lectures with a first year seminar and a writing-intensive second-year program. A milestone experience ensures they are grounded in the fundamentals of their majors. Then, in a culminating experience -- such as an internship, research or service learning project, or capstone course -- students must demonstrate an integration of the knowledge and skills they've acquired here.
I believe this will help them become more desirable employees and citizens. In other words, our graduates won't simply know Fortran; they'll know how to apply the logic to whatever comes at them next.
Carl Reiber is vice provost for academic affairs and a professor of life sciences.