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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI introduces new experiential learning curriculum
for teaching undergraduate science

KINGSTON, R.I. -- October 25, 2000 -- This fall the University of Rhode Island launched a series of new undergraduate experiential learning courses and activities in its Department of Natural Resources Science designed to engage students in real-world problem solving and to better prepare them for their future careers as environmental scientists.

"This effort includes new research apprenticeships, internship programs, teaching practicums, and smaller class sizes in order to get students excited about science and research during their freshman and sophomore years," explained Thomas Husband, professor and chairman of URI's Department of Natural Resources Science. "We don't want them to wait until they're juniors or seniors before thinking about their career direction."

The new programs are, in part, a response to a national report issued in 1998 by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, which was critical of the methods used to teach undergraduates at U.S. research universities. The report recommended reducing the "seat time" students spend in the classroom and providing more one-on-one, hands-on, experiential learning with faculty and researchers.

According to URI's Deborah Grossman-Garber, one of the architects of the new program, hands-on learning isn't a new educational concept, but it is a paradigm shift for educating undergraduate students in the sciences.

"Many schools and educators have been doing small pieces of this for years. Our students have recently begun asking for these opportunities, and we're happy we can now provide them in a comprehensive way."

The new program is based on URI's successful Coastal Fellows Program, a problem-based, mentored learning program that has generated tremendous enthusiasm among students studying the environmental sciences. URI President Robert L. Carothers recommended that the Coastal Fellows model be embedded in the curriculum, beginning in the Department of Natural Resources Science and later expanded to other departments.

Following a year long planning process, URI developed a model that combines traditional classroom teaching, experiential learning, reflection on what has been learned, and a synthesis of knowledge.

During the experiential learning component, students will work on vertically integrated research teams -- comprised of research scientists, faculty, graduate students and undergraduates to engage in actual problem solving. Research opportunities will include both on-campus apprenticeships and internships outside the University.

"Undergraduate students will take responsibility for a piece of the research and make a genuine contribution," said Husband.

Added Grossman-Garber: "It's an opportunity for students to assume the professional language of their academic discipline that will allow them to succeed in their field. And it gives them an enormous boost of enthusiasm."

The reflective component of the program is entirely new to the curriculum. Students will be encouraged to set their own educational and professional goals and to reflect on how they are proceeding toward those goals. One outcome of this component will be the creation of individualized Professional Development Portfolios, which may include a statement of goals and examples of the student's academic work.

The synthesis component is a designated set of courses in which students will be required to bring together knowledge from a variety of subject areas to address real-world problems and issues.

One part of this new model of undergraduate science education was a Freshman Field Day at URI's W. Alton Jones Campus in West Greenwich on October 21. This hands-on program was an opportunity for students to learn about research tools, techniques, concepts and approaches to fieldwork.

"Our students worked shoulder-to-shoulder with grad students, researchers and staff and got a seven hour snap-shot of their future," Husband said.

URI freshman Elliott Myers of Washington, D.C. notes, "It was a great experience and a lot of fun. It was nice to get out in the wilderness, meet the professors and get to know exactly what they do when they're conducting their research. It definitely helped me decide that this is what I want to study."

For Information: Deborah Grossman-Garber 874-5401,
Thomas Husband 874-2912, Todd McLeish 874-7892


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