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Carolina launches five-year 'Creating Scientists' initiative

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has launched a five-year initiative, "Creating Scientists: Learning by Connecting, Doing and Making," to expose undergraduate students to more hands-on research and collaborative opportunities and help them hone their analytical and problem-solving skills to tackle real-world problems.

The plan is not just for science majors, notes Kelly Hogan, director of the Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP. An important element is to connect the arts and the humanities with the sciences so that students can increase their critical thinking and communication skills and diversify their perspectives.

"The process of science is non-linear, non-prescriptive and sometimes messy," said Hogan, who is also assistant dean of instructional innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences and a senior STEM lecturer in biology. "This QEP will implement educational innovations that align more closely with contemporary models of teaching and learning science — the interconnections between how ideas arise and then are tested, the feedback from scientific community, and the needs of society."

The QEP is a required part of the University's reaffirmation (reaccreditation) process by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Every university undergoing this 10-year review is required to create a plan that focuses on broad-based campus initiatives to improve student learning. (Carolina's last QEP, in 2006, revamped the General Education curriculum and introduced Maymester, for example.)

Planners chose to focus the latest QEP on undergraduate science for many reasons: There has been a 60 percent increase in intended or declared science majors since 2004. Women, minorities and first-generation science students remain underrepresented in the sciences at UNC, and transfer students face particular obstacles in completing science coursework in time to graduate in four years.

"I believe that all our students will benefit from this initiative, regardless of their area of academic study, as the approaches and the experiences travel across departments and disciplines," Chancellor Carol L. Folt said.

There are four main components of the Creating Scientists initiative:

  • Integrated Curricula: An interdisciplinary effort to integrate the arts and humanities with science courses to provide critical thinking skills and an understanding of the myriad ways in which science and culture are intertwined.
  • Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE): An introduction to research by engaging a class in a hypothesis-driven research problem.
  • Makerspace: The design and making of physical objects as a way to learn research and entrepreneurship.
  • Research Exposure Opportunities: Infrastructure to ensure research experiences for all students.

CURE classes have already been piloted at UNC; one example is a seafood forensics class in which students test seafood samples to verify the accuracy of the food labels and explore the implications of mislabeling on ecosystems, policy and human health.

Kevin Guskiewicz, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, recently asked College faculty to propose interdisciplinary First Year Seminar courses in which at least one faculty member is in the natural or social sciences and one is from the arts or humanities.

"The boundaries between the natural and social sciences and the arts and humanities are artificial, and many of today's challenges demand integrated perspectives and approaches," Guskiewicz said in the memo.

There will also be calls for proposals to create new CURE classes and classes that use the campus makerspaces as part of the coursework, Hogan said.

As part of this effort, UNC-Chapel Hill is launching University Research Week from March 27-31. More details will be forthcoming, but the week's focus will be broader than just the sciences and will highlight faculty and student scholarship across the arts and humanities as well. Importantly, the week will underscore the main goal of the QEP: for students to expand their conceptions of science and what it means to do research and experience the blurred boundaries between disciplines.

To learn more, visit qep.unc.edu.


Story Geneva Collins and Cyndy Falgout of the UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts & Sciences. Video by Rob Holliday, University Communications.
Originally published at UNC Spotlights.

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