TCU rethinks academic norms with new cross-disciplinary classes

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    Six students with sketchpads are scattered throughout a hallway inside Steve and Sarah Smith Entrepreneurs Hall, focusing on their drawings.

    Passersby stare at them. This is an unusual sight in Smith Hall, which is primarily used for business courses.

    Though a bit confusing now, such a sight may soon become common on campus. The students were there as part of a new class called LaunchPad: Entrepreneurship Arts, which draws on the fields of art, dance and entrepreneurship.

    Along with a handful of other classes, this innovative learning experience is leading the university in its push toward a more cross-disciplinary campus.

    After the first three class meetings, sophomore theater major Mackie Louis said she was already hooked on the idea.

    “It’s literally my favorite class,” Louis said. “It is getting students who sit in desks all day out of their comfort zones, doing weird activities like we do in theater classes.”

    In the sketchpad activity, students draw the path of an imaginary ant walking through the building without looking at their work or lifting their pens from the paper. This activity, called a blind contour, inspires creative thinking by forcing students to use a variety of senses and respond to space. Similar to preparing a business plan, the activity requires consideration of the process, as opposed to just the look of the finished product.

    “We’re doing stuff that we’re not used to doing,” senior marketing major Steven Imaizumi said. “We can take the things we learn in our majors and see the connection those have to everything else.”

    Provost Nowell Donovan said expanding students' opportunities to engage in deeper, interdisciplinary thinking is one of the university's goals. Gradually, more courses are being offered that extend beyond the boundaries of individual academic departments.

    Donovan said he envisions the creation of an interdisciplinary class to explore global challenges, such as the one cited in a December 2012 report by the National Intelligence Council. According to the report, the world's growing population will result in a need for 30 percent more water, 45 percent more energy and 50 percent more food by the year 2030. The course could potentially involve professors and methods from departments such as environmental science, energy, engineering, business and geology working together to brainstorm solutions, Donavan said.

    “The thrust behind the interdisciplinary programs is based on the fact that there are some very big problems out there that need our best attention,” Donovan said. “Those problems are coming upon us very rapidly, and we’ve got to prepare [students] to be active citizens and leaders.”

    Such plans are already on the drawing board for TCU, like the LaunchPad course, which is being offered for the first time this semester.

    Currently considered a “special topics” course, the university may eventually decide to make it a permanent curriculum offering.

    Professors from the three different departments—art, entrepreneurship and dance—teach the class as a team. The ultimate goal is to bring students from different fields together to share ideas and resources for creating and presenting a business plan, according to the syllabus.

    Michael Sherrod, the William M. Dickey entrepreneur in residence and the course's business professor, said he sees a need for students from many different disciplines to be trained in entrepreneurship. He also oversees the university’s involvement with Coleman Fellows, a national program designed to promote the incorporation of entrepreneurial principles into non-business classes.

    “Thinking like an entrepreneur, even if you are part of a large corporation, helps you understand and helps you think more critically in ways that are really important for your economic survival,” Sherrod said. “Every student should be taught the principles of thinking like an entrepreneur.”

    In addition to curriculum changes, construction is under way for increased cross-disciplinary space on campus. Blueprint drawings for Rees-Jones Hall, which Donovan said is the “silo-busting building” attached to the library, show planned spaces for specialized labs and collaborative learning. Classrooms will include tables that can be easily reconfigured to create different educational environments.

    Classroom setup has been a challenge for the LaunchPad course. Moving from the sketchpad exercise into a dance activity, the class is constrained to the third of the room not occupied by desks and chairs.

    The group spreads out in this small space and thinks of an action or a sound to demonstrate their individual entrepreneurial strengths. Sally Packard, director of the School of Art and the course's art professor, chooses a pose similar to football’s Heisman Trophy, saying her strength is running full speed, dragging others behind her.

    Donovan said professors and administrators who are resistant to new ways of thinking about learning “will be left behind by history.”

    “We can’t be static,” Donovan said. “Education demands that you’re not static. The big questions don’t go away.”

    Mauricio Rodriguez, professor and chair of the finance department, has remained at a distance from cross-disciplinary courses up to this point.

    “At the moment, I’m not taking an active role, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t down the road,” Rodriguez said. “I’d be inclined to taking a very active role between energy and finance.”

    Louis said her adviser in the theater department discouraged her from taking the LaunchPad course, saying it did not fit into her schedule or offer any credit she needed. But Louis said she saw it as perfect preparation for her long-term goal of opening an urban theater that would attract young people by having a restaurant or coffee shop in front.

    “If we look at the businesses that actually work, they’re innovative and creative,” Louis said.

    Even if the class is not an ideal fit for her schedule, she said investing time in developing creative thinking is beneficial in the long run.

    Ron Pitcock, J. Vaughn & Evelyne H. Wilson Honors Fellow, said cross-disciplinary learning also makes students “more compelling.” He said a recent nursing graduate was asked questions relating not only to her nursing experience but also to her class about philanthropy in a recent job interview.

    In Pitcock's “Nature of Giving” course, students study the history and process of philanthropy and have the opportunity to strategically distribute actual funds to various charitable organizations. This class, as well as other upper-division colloquia in the John V. Roach Honors College, creates a discussion-based classroom that engages diverse fields such as history, anthropology, sociology, literature and psychology, he said.

    While these Honors College courses act as a model for interdisciplinary academics, Pitcock said students could propel this “seismic yet meaningful change” into other departments.

    “The more students demand interdisciplinary learning – the more they come to classrooms expecting it – the more we’ll see it on the faculty side,” he said. “TCU is positioned in a way that we can have interdisciplinary learning, while large research universities might not.”

    The shift is already underway on campus. It may take some restructuring of the course catalog and reconfiguring of traditional teaching styles, but, as Donovan said, “the world is changing, and we have to change with it.”

    So in a few years, it may not be so uncommon to see sketchpads in a business building.