In an effort to promote interdisciplinary education, Cornell will offer 13 new “University Courses” this fall, which will give students a chance to approach a subject from different angles of various fields of study.
The courses do not have any prerequisites and students from all seven undergraduate colleges have been encouraged to enroll.
According to Laura Brown, vice provost for undergraduate education, the initiative aims to provide a chance for undergraduates to participate in an intellectually stimulating “common” experience during their time at Cornell.
“When the University’s new strategic plan, which is now in its second year, was created, one of the goals was to provide a more uniform, coherent experience for the undergraduate students,” Brown said. “As students go into their respective majors, they may not be able to fully experience Cornell as ‘one university’, so the initiative gives students the opportunity to envision the University as a whole instead of a segmented institutional structure.”
The initiative’s primary mission is to provide students with a cross-disciplinary study involving the many intersections between varying fields of study.
“For example, the History of Exploration course this year was taught by an astronomer and a historian,” Brown said. “They are completely different disciplines. If you took only history courses, you would learn nothing about astronomy and vice versa.
According to Brown, one of the most important aspects of the program is to bring the perspectives of professors in different fields together in the classroom.
“The thought of how professors from different disciplines would bring unique perspectives to a debate about a common topic comes very naturally,” Brown said. “Our goal is to create courses that represent the scope of Cornell’s undergraduate education which varies greatly from one school to another.”
Several of the University Courses were offered this past year, including “History of Exploration: Land, Sea and Space” which was co-taught by Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, and Prof. Steve Squyres, astronomy.
Although “History of Exploration: Land, Sea, and Space” was not designated as a University course this year, it will be for 2012-13. Norton attributed the diversity of majors and colleges the course was attracting students from as a reason for this change.
“This year, we had students from each college. Since we were already drawing from all seven colleges at Cornell, the decision to make it into a University Course was fairly easy,” Norton said. “University Courses receive additional funding and are allowed to increase enrollment by 40 to 50 students.”
According to Norton, the course covers an expansive span in history “starting from the Polynesians spreading across in the Pacific in 1500 B.C. and ending with the latest download from Mars.”
“One of the questions we consider is how one can define exploration. Do you have to be a person to explore? Can the robots that Prof. Squyres helps send up to Mars really be considered explorers?” Norton asked.
Students in the course study first-hand accounts of expeditions — including the logs of Columbus and Captain James Cook — along with texts about the history of exploration.
Another University Course which will be offered next year is “Hip Hop: Beats, Rhythm and Life” under the instruction of Prof. Steve Pond, music, Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, English and Prof. Travis Gosa, social science.
According to Pond, the University Courses will emphasize a “strong focus on perspectives that go beyond disciplines.”
“There’s a certain kind of dynamism that happens when people from different disciplines look at a topic from different angles,” Pond said. “We are talking about a historical approach, but history as broadly defined as possible.”