Brennan Quinn (above), Kathleen Huang (right)
and Zwelithini Tunyiswa (below right) are among
the 200 freshmen trying out the pilot curriculum.
Quinn C04 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,
shes thinking of majoring in the biological basis of behavior. I
didnt ever expect to be converted to the sciences, she says.
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.
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.
is precisely the kind of open-minded academic journey that the innovators
behind Penns pilot curriculum hope to stimulate. Too few students
venture outside the well-beaten path of courses, and a handful of
majors count for the lions share of them all, observes Dr. Kent
Peterman, director of academic affairs in the College and executive
director of the pilot curriculm. Wed like to get them to open up
to other visions of what they might do.
a dozen years with the same curriculum, faculty gave the go-ahead
in 1999 to run a pilot program with a dramatically different approachone
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.
think whats unique about our initiative is that its an experimental
process, Peterman says. Rather than try to come to some agreement
about what [the best curriculum for Penn is] going to be, weve decided
to take our time. Were not trying to do some emergency repair.
far the pilot curriculum hasnt won the favor of all professors at
Pennindeed, 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 its adopted in toto.
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 productwhatever that may turn out to be. Ive 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.
instance, one of his stated goals for the Collegethough he fears
it may sound like Mom and apple pieis to improve the quality of
teaching and learning. Though the institutions 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 dont
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.
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