Monday, April 19, 2010

The Opportunity Curriculum

I had lunch today with a group of Westminster students who had been finalists for or had received prestigious fellowships in the past year.

Tim Dolan, who works with those students (together with running our Undergraduate Research and Problem-Based Learning initiatives), and President Michael Bassis asked the students to describe how they had come to conceive of the projects that won them accolades. In each instance the students described how they had access to a curriculum of opportunity--a series of classes, a student community, faculty members who encouraged, mentored, and critiqued their work.

I have been intrigued with this curriculum lately, in part because my daughter is about to go to Switzerland to serve an internship with a green hedge fund, due to the opportunity curriculum at her college.

At Westminster the curriculum looks like this:
1. get accepted into the Honors program where you take a modified liberal education curriculum, comprised of interdisciplinary courses team-taught by the college's most active researchers (who also happen to be among its best teachers),

2. major in a hard science, economics, or philosophy, where either because of small class sizes or intense lab work you get to know faculty as colleagues and critics,

3. get involved in some sort of major project or club--the ethics bowl team, for example,

4. get an international experience in your first or second year, especially one that involves service and/or public policy,

5. apply for a fellowship early--preferably as a sophomore, certainly as a junior. Take advantage of the college's resources to get your application scrutinized

6. apply again as a senior, with a more refined proposal and with an eye to graduate school.

I call this a curriculum for a couple of reasons: first, it does rely in part on course work. Second, faculty are central to it. Third, it follows a map that points in a particular direction. And fourth, this curriculum, like all of them, is chosen by some students and unavailable (by choice or design) to most.

Given that the components of the opportunity curriculum are the things that lead to student success, learning, and completion, I would hope that access would be widely available. I am sure it is no surprise that instead access is quite limited.

I am not sure how to broaden access. But at the very least we ought to design student experiences so the opportunity curriculum is visible, recognizable, and available.

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