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rather than student
progress.
UMR has taken
a radically different
approach. “We
want to make sure
we actually build
a curriculum, and
not just individual
courses,” said
Neuhauser. “A new
campus is such
an opportunity
to do things that
are hard to do at
an established
university.” Its small
size is also a distinct
advantage: With a
current enrollment
of 140 students
and just 20 faculty
members, UMR is
able to be far more flexible and innovative than larger
institutions.
A mathematician by training, Neuhauser began
focusing on interdisciplinary instruction after she had
her own “Las Vegas”–style experience in education in
the mid-1990s, when she was teaching calculus at the
University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. The
students didn’t seem to appreciate why they should bother
with the subject. “I knew it was important, but it wasn’t
reflected in the course I was teaching,” said Neuhauser.
Recognizing that students learn better when they learn
in context, she went on to write a calculus textbook
specifically designed for biology majors.
At UMR, interdisciplinary assignments ensure that
concepts don’t get lost in one course, but
are picked up repeatedly. For instance,
freshmen enrolled in both sociology
and statistics have tried to figure out
how much a pack of cigarettes would
have to cost to cut the number of
smokers in half; chemistry students have
made glucose, then studied its effects
in biology; students in bioethics have
examined issues surrounding animal
testing, specifically how big the animals’
cages should be and yet still be efficient,
then designed and built cages in their
statistics class.
“What we want to get them to do is
understand that what they’re learning
has practical applications in the world they’re going to be
in,” said assistant professor Rebecca Bamford, who teaches
bioethics. Bamford came to UMR from Hunter College,
where, she said, she rarely had an opportunity to interact
with faculty in different disciplines; her only conversation
with a chemistry professor, for instance, was on a bus on
the way to a graduation ceremony. At UMR, by contrast,
the professor who teaches chemistry is just down the hall,
and Bamford has attended his classes to figure out ways
they can collaborate. Faculty often sit in on each other’s
classes; in some ways, Bamford said, it feels like “we’re
actually taking the courses ourselves.”
Interdepartmental rivalries are non-existent because
there are no academic departments. Instead, UMR has
divided the traditional duties of a professor into separate
jobs. There are tenure-track “design-based” faculty, who
are responsible for designing the curriculum they teach as
well as continuing research in their field of expertise; and
“student-based” faculty, instructors who help implement
the curriculum and are available outside of class to answer
any questions the students have. Classes are team-taught
between them. The school also has hired student “success
coaches” who function as academic and career-path
advisers throughout the students’ time at UMR.
Because it’s so new, there are few data by which to
judge UMR, which will not graduate its first class until
2013. But students said that they like its highly structured
curriculum and interdisciplinary approach. “It makes me
more interested because then I can see [a subject] from all
perspectives,” said Mary McCoy, a sophomore who helped
research and design the poster about malaria that hangs
outside Chancellor Lehmkuhle’s office.
Lehmkuhle was hired to take the helm of UMR in
2007, after many years at the University of Missouri,
where he served in several senior administrative positions,
including vice president for academic affairs. With a
Ph.D. in experimental psychology, his interest in learning
goes back to his days as a graduate student. Specifically,
he studied how the brain processes visual information.
Isolated brain cells, he notes, are ineffective at encoding
information; the brain’s tremendous abilities derive from
interconnectivity among many cells. Lehmkuhle believes
that is an appropriate metaphor for an effective university
as well.
So at UMR, connections are the name of the game.
Connections between faculty, who coordinate teaching
modules and assignments; connections between faculty
and students, who are continually called upon to
provide feedback about teaching methods (the faculty
through research, the students through evaluations);
and connections between the school and the Rochester
community, especially with its renowned Mayo Clinic,
which provides guest speakers and other opportunities for
students (such as job shadowing and observing surgeries)
as they explore careers in the health sciences.
Those connections are reinforced by the school’s
location and layout: It occupies the third and fourth
floors of University Square, a high-end mall that connects
with much of downtown Rochester, including the Mayo
Clinic, through a series of skywalks and underground
passageways. Classrooms, known in UMR parlance
as “learning labs,” are designed so students face each
other to optimize interaction and small-group work. All
students are issued Lenovo ThinkPad laptop computers
that they lease from the school, so they can network with
“Obviously, building a totally new program is a challenge,”
says Claudia Neuhauser, vice chancellor of the University of
Minnesota Rochester. “We want to make sure we actually
build a curriculum, and not just individual courses.”
With a current
enrollment of 140
students and just
20 faculty members,
UMR is able to be
far more flexible and
innovative than
larger institutions.