Coming soon: a transformed first-year program

Starting Fall 2015, as part of the college's transformation, first-year students in the college will experience stronger connections between their majors and humanities courses. This first-year integration of themes and projects includes the expansion of TECH 12000 (Design Thinking in Technology) and coordination with English, communication, and major-specific introductory courses for all students.

Nathan Mentzer and Dawn Laux, course coordinators for TECH 12000, led a yearlong reimagining of the first-year experience that puts student learning and engagement at its core. One of the first changes was doubling the number of TECH 12000 weekly classroom hours. Students in the course requested more time with their instructors.

“They asked for it, and we responded. It will give students more time to engage with the materials with the support of their instructors,” said Mentzer, assistant professor of technology leadership and innovation.

The additional instructional time is just one of the scheduling items Mentzer and Laux had to consider as they worked to build a cohesive learning experience across the first two semesters.

“We’re looking for intersections,” said Laux, clinical assistant professor of computer and information technology. “We’re identifying intentional connection points among the courses and synchronizing the gears. We want to get the gears to mesh in students’ minds.”

Those intersections will be supported by more deliberate scheduling of ENGL 10600 (First-Year Composition) and COM 11400 (Fundamentals of Speech Communication) for those first-year students who are required to take them. In addition, as students are focusing on papers and presentations in their Technology courses, they will be able to use skills from the other two classes to support their efforts.

“Literature suggests that creating these connections and more of them improves persistence,” said Mentzer “We are not only connecting the courses academically, but also structurally and physically.”

For the fall semester, students will register for either the required English or communication course, TECH 12000, and their department’s introductory, or gateway, course. Each of the TECH 12000 sections will include 40 students, 20 from the English course and 20 from the communication course. Students will attend TECH 12000 and their second course back-to-back and in the same classroom. Additional TECH 12000 sections are planned for those students who don’t need COM 11400 or ENG 10600.

In the spring, as students take the next course(s) in their discipline, most will also enroll in the required English or communications course they didn’t take in the fall. Intersections between the major course and COM/ENG learning outcomes and concepts will again be highlighted and leveraged so that students have a sense of continuity.

Working with gateway courses
In addition to the linkages between technology and humanities courses, the first-year program will include redesigned gateway and other introductory courses, specific to each major, that will more closely follow the active-learning model and project-based characteristics that are core to the college's transformation.

In the Department of Computer Graphics Technology, for example, two lecture-based gateway courses have been revamped and will be offered in a studio format.

“The idea is that there will be no division between lecture and lab,” said Esteban Garcia, assistant professor, who will teach the courses along with Pat Connolly, department head, and a few teaching assistants. “We are having three-hour blocks at a time. We can start with a short 10-15 demo or lecture and move into an activity mode to collaborate and work on projects. It will have a more dynamic feel. In the past, it was more of a non-participative experience.”

In addition, they have identified and adopted common themes across the integrated courses, such as peer evaluations and critiques and the importance of effective communication.

“We’re creating more room for exploration,” Garcia said.