URI freshmen tackling Grand Challenges

New courses prompt students to think about global issues

KINGSTON, R.I. – November 15, 2010 — Freshmen at the University of Rhode Island have been examining complex global issues from the first day of classes this year as part of a new series of courses called Grand Challenges.

The 28 interdisciplinary Grand Challenges courses have small enrollments and are taught by full-time faculty members. The classes focus on global challenges such as poverty, diversity, hunger and climate change, and they have intriguing titles like “Media and Race Relations,” “The Weight is Over,” “The Future of Families,” “Heavy Metal,” and “Earth Gone Mad?”

“We are paying particular attention to the first-year experience,” said Jayne Richmond, dean of URI’s University College. “Freshmen come with a lot of self doubt and fear in the academic arena, and providing them with both challenge and support is enormously important. They need some help with knowing how to be a college student, and these classes provide that while also getting them to think about contemporary global issues.”

Most Grand Challenges courses are paired with a writing or communications course, so the discussion and assignments in the paired course incorporate the content covered in the Grand Challenges course.

“That aspect has been particularly well received,” said Richmond. “Some of the students have said, ‘I love that what I’m learning about in one class is being reflected in the other.’ It’s a wonderful way to really understand the topics we are covering.”

The courses were developed as a result of a request by URI Provost Donald DeHayes to create innovations in general education classes. The initiative was spearheaded by Rachel DiCioccio, associate professor of communications studies, and Vice Provost Laura Beauvais, with invaluable assistance from Vice Provost Dean Libutti. It was established by the URI General Education Task Force to enrich the first year experience by giving students an opportunity to learn through an interdisciplinary lens.

While the classes have forced students to think in different ways, they have also been a challenge for faculty members, many of whom had never taught freshmen before. Each of the faculty instructors became Grand Challenges Fellows and agreed to participate in a series of workshops last spring, the first of which focused on strategies for teaching freshmen. Other workshops covered co-teaching and establishing learning outcomes across classes.

“I’ve been struck with the intelligence and energy of my students,” said President Emeritus Robert L. Carothers, who is teaching a leadership course. “I haven’t been in the classroom for more than 30 years, but I’m just dazzled by these kids.”

Added Kathleen Gorman, director of URI’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger-Free America: “I think what is most exciting about the Grand Challenges can be summed up in the words of one of my students who at first wasn’t sure about the course, but recently commented ‘now I realize, it’s all about challenging me, as a person, to think and work harder, and it feels good.”

The University has issued a request for proposals seeking suggestions from faculty members for the development of new Grand Challenges courses for the fall of 2011.