Communication and Marketing

Alma to the core

Our new core curriculum lives the mission of Alma in new and exciting ways, benefiting students long after their graduation.

Associate professor and business department chair Bob Cunningham is pictured during the Fall 2022... Associate professor and business department chair Bob Cunningham is pictured during the Fall 2022 term.The new core curriculum of Alma College encourages students to explore, question, integrate and apply, providing them with the skills they need to become a lifelong learner, and an attractive candidate for any job.

Otherwise known as “general education” or “distributive requirements,” the new core curriculum will help students go beyond their major into something more suited for the liberal arts mission that has been at the center of Alma College for its 137-year history — something that will produce thinkers who can adapt, learn, and solve all sorts of problems after college.

Laura von Wallmenich, associate professor of English and American studies coordinator, and Amanda Harwood, associate professor of biology and environmental sciences, are the co-coordinators of the new core curriculum. Working together, they believe they have created something that will prove to students there is more to college studies than what is in their chosen major.

“If we construct a core curriculum that produces a class of Alma graduates who instinctively know that when they look at a knotty problem, they should see how far one perspective gets them before switching to another, then we have graduated a group of thinkers and problem solvers,” von Wallmenich said.

NO MORE ‘TICKING A BOX’

Here’s a situation that generation after generation of students in both college and high school have faced: They have either completed the required coursework for their major or are in the process of doing so. However, they still have “elective” course obligations they need to fulfill. So, they approach their schedules like a sampler plate; with an Intro to Geology course here and an English Composition course there.

It’s a system that allows students to get a peek into different disciplines and ways of thinking. However, that system is reflective of an older idea of education, one that relies on introductory courses in a way that is unsustainable today. It puts seniors in classrooms with first-year students — people who may go to the same school, but are on completely different tracks in their educational journeys.

In place of the sampler plate, the faculty say, they are embracing the symbolism of a tree. Students will begin their careers at Alma College by establishing a wide base of knowledge, before making intentional strides further up the trunk and toward the branches. Students are still required to take courses in different disciplines, but those courses will be more tailored to their personal situation than they were before.

“To use one example, we previously told students that they needed to take a course in mathematics in order to graduate. But we didn’t tell them why it was important for them to do so,” Harwood said. “Now, we’re telling them, ‘You need to take a course in quantitative reasoning, and one way you can satisfy that requirement is by taking mathematics.’ It’s about meeting learning outcomes, rather than ticking a box.”

EXPLORING DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

In the new core curriculum, in the first year that students enter Alma College, they’ll be given the tools they need to succeed, and then the opportunity to consider different perspectives for solving problems. They will then decide which problems are important to them — what fundamental questions they want to answer in the world — before moving on to putting their skills to use.

Among the highlights of the new core curriculum are “Explore” courses that are designed for first- and second-year students. Regardless of their major, students will be required to take at least one course in four different “Explore” categories during their first and second years: Making and Understanding the Arts, Examining Self and Society, Applying Scientific Thinking and Engaging in Inclusion, Equity and Justice (JEDI).

These courses intentionally cut across disciplines. For example, Harwood said, a biology professor and an English professor may both teach courses that meet the JEDI requirement, while an art professor and a political science professor may both teach about Examining Self and Society. The goal is for Alma students to understand there are different ways to approach similar issues.

“I always say that everyone in general education builds their own toolbox, outside of their major. Our old core curriculum model might have only given you a hammer. But now, we’re giving you screwdrivers, wrenches, and anything else you can think of,” Harwood said. “We live in a complex world. You need many tools to fix the important issues we face.”

ANSWERING FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS

More than ever before, Alma’s new core curriculum acknowledges the student by saying, “Tell us what’s important to you.” As students progress, they will explore a fundamental issue or a question of their own choosing and decide how the different perspectives they learned about in their first two years can address those questions. These are called “Themes” courses.

Examples of various themes students may choose from are: “How can we solve the environmental crisis?,” “How do we navigate questions of human rights?,” and “What cultures and identities shape who we are?” Students will be required to take courses in three different disciplines that address these questions.

Students will conclude their time at Alma by applying what they have learned, both in their majors and in their general education courses, with an Interdisciplinary Seminar (IDS). It’s the equivalent of a capstone; a course that requires assessment and reflection of what a student has learned and how they’ve learned it, outside of their chosen major.

ROOTED IN THE LIBERAL ARTS

While the new core curriculum reflects a more current model of higher education than the old, it is still deeply rooted in the mission of Alma College. In fact, von Wallmenich said, it’s rooted even deeper than the old: students will have more shared experiences with their classmates than they did previously, taking courses that have an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary education.

“Our new core curriculum is completely unique to our institution. There’s no other college that uses this exact model,” von Wallmenich said. “It’s something that has been built around our mission statement. We see some aspects of it as literally living our mission.”

The new core curriculum will be consistently re-evaluated on a rotating basis; a sort of living document subject to updates as needed. It’s the product of five years of work, a project that began in 2018, that has been voted on and unanimously approved by faculty — somewhat of a rarity in the world of higher education.

“This wasn’t something that Laura and I did alone — I think every faculty member has their thumbprint on this in some way,” Harwood said. “I’m really appreciative of everyone’s efforts and the leap of faith they took in doing this. They knew it would change us in some pretty profound ways, but I think this is a good change that we needed to make.”

Story published on January 11, 2023