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“Test” subjects:
Brennan Quinn (above), Kathleen Huang (right)
and Zwelithini Tunyiswa (below right) are among
the 200 freshmen trying out the pilot curriculum.

By Susan Lonkevich

Photography by
Addison Geary

 

Brennan Quinn C’04 co-edited her high school newspaper and coordinated eight student chapters of Amnesty International in her home state of Washington. When she came to Penn from Seattle four months ago, the freshman considered herself pre-law; her loyalties lay with the humanities. Now, however, she’s thinking of majoring in the biological basis of behavior. “I didn’t ever expect to be converted to the sciences,” she says.
   
The catalyst for this change was a course called “Perspectives on Cognitive Neuroscience: Mind, Brain and Society,” a savory stew of philosophy, law and psychology taught by a trio of professors last fall. The interdisciplinary class fulfills one of the general requirements for 200 College freshmen who, like Quinn, have volunteered to try out an experimental curriculum over the next four years.
   
The class “attempts to answer questions that anyone with an iota of curiosity wants to know,” Quinn explains. “The whys behind our existence and how we process information, and how our minds and bodies [interact].” As excited as she is by these paths of inquiry, Quinn looks forward to sampling other disciplines her second semester as she searches for a major.
   
Hers is precisely the kind of open-minded academic journey that the innovators behind Penn’s pilot curriculum hope to stimulate. “Too few students venture outside the well-beaten path of courses, and a handful of majors count for the lion’s share of them all,” observes Dr. Kent Peterman, director of academic affairs in the College and executive director of the pilot curriculm. “We’d like to get them to open up to other visions of what they might do.”
   
After a dozen years with the same curriculum, faculty gave the go-ahead in 1999 to run a pilot program with a dramatically different approach—one that puts more responsibility in students’ hands for choosing electives, while exposing them during their first two years at the University to a variety of academic disciplines through a small number of required courses. It will be evaluated over the next four to five years, using a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
   
“I think what’s unique about our initiative is that it’s an experimental process,” Peterman says. “Rather than try to come to some agreement about what [the best curriculum for Penn is] going to be, we’ve decided to take our time. We’re not trying to do some emergency repair.”
   
So far the pilot curriculum hasn’t won the favor of all professors at Penn—indeed, many members of the science faculty argue that it waters down the sciences. And as promising as Dr. Richard Beeman, the dean of the College, finds the plan to be, he says he would be surprised if it’s adopted in toto.
   
But Beeman, who came up with the general idea of a set of curricular experiments in 1998, believes the process of experimentation is as valuable as the product—whatever that may turn out to be. “I’ve always considered the pilot curriculum as a metaphor for a faculty willing and eager to rethink every aspect of what we do in undergraduate education.”
   
For instance, one of his stated goals for the College—though he fears it may sound “like Mom and apple pie”—is to “improve the quality of teaching and learning.” Though the institution’s respect for teaching has increased in the 15 years he has been an administrator
at Penn, Beeman says, it is “still regarded more lightly than scholarly
research and publication. And one of the reasons for that is we don’t have the same reliable means for evaluating good teaching that we do scholarship. The whole process of evaluating outcomes in the pilot curriculum will hopefully help us understand better how we do that.”

SIDEBAR:
“An Opportunity
to Get the Best”

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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 1/2/01