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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue: July 29, 2002
Volume 38, Number 2

At the core of freshmen learning
Clusters set the course for change

By Michael Padilla

Final installment in a four-part series about recent changes at UNM made to boost retention and create a "freshman experience," a holistic approach to assist students entering college life.

The idea of the Hewlett Core Cluster program is to bring senior faculty together to teach around a common theme and to help change the way students look at learning.

A three-year effort now in it’s last year, the program set the standard for exposing students to various learning opportunities, says Nancy Uscher, associate provost for Academic Affairs and program director.

“The Core Clusters have exposed students to learning in an interdisciplinary context,” Uscher said, adding that the program is committed to improving undergraduate education and student retention.

The Core Clusters, sponsored by a $150,000 three-year grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, are based on broad themes that link three different requirements of the core curriculum. The funding is matched by the University.

Uscher says two major success stories came out of the program. First, senior faculty from across disciplines are working together and blending their knowledge. Second, students say that the clusters have changed the way they look at learning.

“The Core Clusters have brought together faculty who otherwise would have never had the opportunity to work together,” Uscher said. “It’s fitting to see faculty who have been here for so many years working closely.”

In addition to receiving face-to-face contact with faculty, students participate in field trips, class discussions and get a chance to make new friends.

“We have been fortunate to have had such a great response from the students,” she said. “The students really enjoy the fact that they have access to UNM’s top senior faculty.”

The all star faculty participating in next semester’s program include William Gross, engineering professor emeritus; Paul Nathanson, director of the UNM Institute of Public Law and faculty at the School of Law; Everett Rogers, regents’ professor in communications and journalism; Laura Crossey, professor and associate chair in earth and planetary sciences; Virginia Scharff, professor and director of the Center for the Southwest; Wirt H. Willis, Regents’ Lecturer; Karl Karlstrom, Earth and Planetary Sciences professor; Jeff Froehlich, anthropology professor; Vera Norwood, American Studies professor and Arts and Sciences associate dean; and Gary Harrison, English professor.

During the first year, the faculty participated in training on collaborative teaching to help them rethink how they would present course material. Three training retreats were held which addressed teaching methods, involving students in discussion, making assignments, working with groups and coordinating syllabi to ensure that exams or paper deadlines were not held at the same time.

Uscher says the goal of the project is ultimately to find a way to sustain the core cluster principle.

“The idea is to continue to link courses and make connections across the curriculum,” she said.

“The Core Clusters have brought together faculty who otherwise would have never had the opportunity to work together. It’s fitting to see faculty who have been here for so many years working closely.”

Program Director Nancy Uscher

Jonathan Wilks, a teaching assistant in the Medicine and Culture Cluster, said he hopes students not only gain the knowledge that each of the three courses impart, but that they become attached to the new practice of learning and thinking.

“Making connections between subjects, with other students and as apprentice scholars with their teachers can be very exciting,” Wilks said. “It is the intellectual excitement that is generated in the Core Clusters that I hope students can carry through their college education and on into whatever follows in their lives.”

Wilkes said the cluster courses allow students who may be early on in their college education to explore a new area about which they may be curious, but apprehensive, while still maintaining a safe hold on their area of primary interest.

Dorothy Baca, who taught theater in a cluster about Nuevo Mexicano culture and language with two other professors, said the idea was to reach out to a Hispanic student population, which has a high drop out rate at UNM.

“The important foundation of the cluster is to give the students a sense of belonging to the University community and creating a peer group, so there is also a sense of responsiblity to the other students in the three courses.”

“The Core Cluster Program gave me a better sense of membership in the University community and it was the first time I had taken any instuction on how to teach,” she said.

Baca said the cluster helped students form relationships with one another and create an alliance with professors.

“That wouldn’t happen in a cattle class,” she said.

“It was interesting to teach students who, in general, had no interest in theatre,” she said. “Most of them had signed up for the other two courses, and assumed that theatre would be of no interest to them. Teaching that class has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had at UNM.”