Episode 7: Jumpstart General Education

SUU has a unique program for general education with the Jumpstart program. Two professors who have been part of the program join the podcast to discuss the approach.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everybody. I'm Steve Meredith, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast with SUU president Scott L Wyatt. Good morning, Scott. 

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve. 

Meredith: We have special guests with us today and I'm going to let you introduce them and kick off our topic for today's podcast, which is SUU's innovative and unique Jumpstart Gen Ed program. 

Wyatt: Well thank you very much. We have two professors here, Professor Matt Nickerson and Professor John Taylor, two of the designers, participants of the Jumpstart program. Let's start with having each of you give us just a really quick introduction. Professor Nickerson, why don't we start with you?

Matt Nickerson: Yeah, my name is Matt Nickerson, I have been teaching at SUU for almost twenty eight years. My original appointment at the university was in the library. I still work in the library, I'm now the Associate Dean of Library Services. Along the way I've taught lots of classes in lots of different departments and colleges since I have three degrees in totally different subjects and I've loved teaching at SUU and it's been a great experience so far. 

Wyatt: You might be the only librarian I know that has a Master of Fine Arts.

Nickerson: Probably true. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Professor Taylor?

John Taylor: My name is John Taylor, I'm a biologist. I've been at Southern Utah University for sixteen years, and I've…the last about five or six years have been really devoted to General Education and, most recently, to Jumpstart. Actually, four years ago. That's what's crazy, this whole thing started four years ago, so time flies when you're having fun, but…

Wyatt: Well, and you get to do things like…you're main research area has been the snuggliest of all creatures. 

Taylor: [All laugh] I do love bats. 

Wyatt: Well, let's jump into this. Jumpstart is kind of the Marketing Department's title for this integrated General Education program that we have at SUU where a student in her or his freshman year gets all the general education classes in one cohort taught around a single theme. We have a variety of themes that the students get to choose from, but the student basically chooses a theme and then the faculty members all come together in this integrated model to teach what would look like one class where the different disciplines inform the question that the student has. Is that a pretty good description? 

Taylor: Yeah. And we rotate those things around every year to try to keep it fresh and new.

Wyatt: And give students choices in the themes? 

Taylor: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Well let's go back to the beginning. So, John Taylor, how did this start? 

Taylor: So it all began when you were first here as a president. You did your Hundred Day Listening Tour and I was in charge of GE at that time, and working in the Provost's Office. And we went to lunch, and you proposed this crazy idea of, "Is it possible to create a General Education program that would be so engaging that students would actually choose to come to Southern Utah University because of it?" And I essentially in broad strokes described the Jumpstart program and you said, "Great! Let's do it!" [All laugh] You know, "Why don't other people do this?" And I said, "Because it's impossible. The structures of a typical university make it just impossible to do." And then you said one of the coolest things ever. You said, "Well that's my job as the president is to make things happen like this." So we agreed to do it and we started breaking molds and breaking down silos and there have been a lot of hurdles we've had to come over. I can definitely see why universities don't do this, but we're getting to the point that the payoff is definitely worth the amount of effort that has gone into it. 

Wyatt: Well and we're three years into this now, I think. This is the third year?

Taylor: Third cohort. We started planning a year in advance. So we've been kind of thinking Jumpstart for four years, but we're in our third cohort right now. 

Wyatt: Professor Nickerson, tell us your experience teaching in this program. 

Nickerson: Well, I am one of the few teachers who have taught during all three years, a different cohort every year. And, like I said, I have been in the university…I've been in higher education a long time. At a previous incarnation I was the director of the Honor's Program at Southern Utah University which was a fabulous opportunity and a great job, and I thought it was the best job you could have in higher education until I taught the first cohort of Jumpstart and I realized, "No, Jumpstart is the coolest thing, as a faculty member, that I've ever been able to participate in." And part of that is just getting to work with so many other faculty. As the President described earlier, when you join the cohort, you join in a team of six or seven other faculty members, each with their own disciplinary expertise, and you all dive in to this one cohort class where you meet three hours a day for a whole year, each of you bringing your disciplinary expert[ise] to the class and to the students, and then integrating them and interweaving them throughout the whole year. So it's being with the students, and seeing the special lights that come on when they're first experiencing these general education disciplines begin to cross over in their minds, and the lightbulbs go off when they see how disciplines and how ideas and how questions and how the world interacts with each other instead of the siloed ways they've learned in the past. So it's being with the students, but it's also being with my fellow faculty members. We take the opportunity whenever we can to be in class when our fellows are teaching and when they're presenting. Sometimes they're doing it as teams, sometime they're doing it solo, but we get to sit in the back and experience their teaching as well. I've learned more about geology, more about American history, more about photography than I ever knew just by sitting in on my Jumpstart cohort listening to my colleagues teach. It's awesome! 

Wyatt: And sometimes I've heard students say that one of their favorite pieces of this is when the faculty start going after each other. [All laugh]

Nickerson: Yeah it is. I've…one of the things they always want to remember is when Jason Kaiser, our geology teacher in this year's cohort, was talking about how the Navajo sandstone was deposited in Zion National Park and they came from the Eastern United States, and I raised my hand in the back and said, "I don't believe that!" [All laugh] And then he had to…you know, and it caused him to have to go on and explain. It's pretty fun. 

Wyatt: It really gets the students excited to see this. So, John, why don't you give us an example of how all of these disciplines integrate together? 

Taylor: One good example is where we're going in Stage and Screen the afternoon section this upcoming week. So the students have been learning about the atomic bomb, the physics behind that as part of their Physics 1010 course. They've also been learning about ethical reasoning as part of the Philosophy course, and I'll be started today on the Biology side, so the effects of radiation on biological organisms. And then we're going to bring all that together next week through a series of debates over three days, where we've come up with just really good, tough questions where the students are going to have to mix together the ethics, the physics, and the biology and debate both the pros and the cons. And we've picked questions that are really difficult, and then all of that is wrapped into this debate format which is part of the communications piece. So we've actually got four classes that are playing into this. But actually, even English has helped because they just got done doing rhetorical analyses of different works, so they're going to be using those skills to help with this, so it's kind of those five classes even, coming together in a way that you never would see this in a normal General Education program. It's impossible to do. 

Wyatt: Matt, you were doing something with Plato's Cave Allegory. Why don't you describe that?

Nickerson: We just barely finished that. I teach it in the national park cohort this semester, and in trying to bring as many learning outcomes into the course as possible and let them begin to see how they can implement other skills they are learning in the other disciplines into what I'm teaching—which is basically Western culture, the history of Western culture—we got to a very dicey part, which is understanding the beginnings of Western thought. And all of Western thought can be boiled down to Plato, and Plato's thought can be boiled down to his great allegory of the cave as a place to begin to understand form and substance. So, to really make that come alive to them instead of just reading it from the republic, we actually went to an art classroom and I asked them in groups of three to build 3-D models of Plato's allegory of the cave as a way to explain that they understood what they read. And then, they also had to take—because of their photography teacher, which they are also taking this semester—they had to take their phone or their camera and take me on a virtual tour of their 3-D model using Plato's words to explain what I was seeing visually in their movie. And that was what they handed in. And through that, I asked them to then reflect on, "What did they learn?" and "What skills did they have to use in order to further understand Plato's cave and further explain it?" So that's three great disciplines coming together, and we have many other assignments where four, five, and six disciplines come together in one assignment and in one thought experiment. 

Wyatt: What happens with contact and learning outcomes? How does this fit in to all of this? 

Taylor: Well this…that's part of the fun. When we first started, I can remember there was a moment…because when we kind of embarked on this thing it was, "Boy, I sure hope this works." [All laugh] In my mind, I knew it was going to work, but I, you know I was thinking, "Well, we'll probably crash and burn a little bit." And there was a moment I was sitting in the back of the classroom watching some other faculty members teach (I think it was English, Jessica Tvordi and maybe Andy Marvick), and I was in the back of the room with Grant Corser, our phycologist, and we watched a really cool thing happen in class and Grant leaned over to me and he said, "This is actually going to work!" But it requires rethinking what you're doing in the classroom as a professor. You can't just replicate what you're doing in your normal biology class and just port it over into Jumpstart. You've got to be able to come up with new ways for students to show you what they're learning. And so it gives you that kind of flexibly, if you will, but also the energy to go through that rethinking process and ask yourself, "What's the deliverable? What are they students going to do for me [so] they can show me that they're getting this?" And because of the integrated nature, you can do some really cool things to reach those outcomes that you can't do in a normal class. And I just love the format. I think we can get at those learning in ways that you typically don't see. 

Wyatt: Absolutely. 

Taylor: And I think a lot of the teachers…as an organizer this year of my cohort with Dr. Kaiser, we keep emphasizing to our faculty who are teaching the cohort the importance of bringing learning outcomes to whatever their doing. They're equal partners in "What is the discipline you're teaching?" and "What are the learning outcomes you're trying to get students to reach?" And maybe listeners don't even understand what we mean by "learning outcomes", but it's those skills that go beyond the discipline that employers, that PTA's, that just being a citizen out there that require that citizens of the United States have the ability to do in order to be full of participants in the democracy. It's things like critical thinking, communication, oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, group work, team work…and so whenever we're creating assignments, we're not only saying, "How can we teach our discipline? How can we integrate with the other disciplines in our cohort?", but, "How can we bring students abilities and all of these fifteen learning outcomes up a notch to the next level? How can their communication be better? Their qualitative reasoning? Critical thinking? Creativity?" And you bring all those together in an assignment and it's a powerful experience for students, and it's a ton of fun for faculty. 

Wyatt: Well a lot of students graduate, get a job, and their expected to work in teams. Their expected to draw from all of these different what we would describe as "disciplines", but from all these different areas of the world. And they've not had much experience in it. The "normal" student. 

Taylor: And we do know that in talking with students who have now been out of the Jumpstart program—they are all juniors this year—that seeing things in an integrated nature is something that sticks with them. We…after a year of this, when I talk to them as they've moved into their sophomore and junior year, they'll say, "I still keep looking for connections across campus, and this one faculty member of this side of campus and this other one over there, they ought to get together because what they're talking about is almost the same thing and they probably have no idea that they're overlapping that way." So it's kind of cool that the students are still making connections, but another piece that I wanted to bring up…keep in mind, we invited Jumpstart for the students. We thought freshman deserved our very best, and that if we can invest in them and their learning that in the long run, they will be better for it. But it's almost as much as an investment in faculty as it is in students. And I think the faculty are changed forever after they've got through this. It's pretty cool.

Wyatt: Do you think that the students are remembering more? In a regular kind of a class when they cram for an exam or do an assignment or whatever it is, their own methods, versus this kind of class where it's a little bit different? 

Nickerson: Well my experience is that no kind of student usually remembers the minutia that you try to teach them, the details around the core of what your class is about. They may cram that for an exam and be able to spit it out in multiple choice, but even the next week, the next semester, they're not going to remember that. But the core of what we do when your core overlaps with the over discipline within your cohort, that core becomes stronger and stronger and stronger, so as they move forward in their education, I do believe they understand more and they can relate it more to the world around them and whatever they continue to study as they go. I think the core of the disciplines really benefit from the overlapping because they understand how it fits and the importance of it when they hear who it touches all the other disciplines and current events is another thing we bring in a lot as well. It's powerful. 

Taylor: Yeah. I would add to that that…and this a touchy area, because we're all "above average drivers", right? So we're all "above average professors" and we like to think that the students remember every single thing from our classes because "Whatever comes out of my mouth is gold." But the reality is they are going to remember maybe 10%-15% of a class studies are showing, and they longer it goes—you know, five, six, ten years out—I've had students that I thought fifteen years ago and they're like, "You were my favorite professor!" And I'll ask them, "Well what do you remember from class?" "That you jumped up on the desk one day!" And I'm thinking, "That's it? That's…really? But it's that kind of feeling that you can foster in a classroom that makes a big difference, and so that's one thing I try to tell the faculty is that we're in this for the experiences. They're not going to remember the minutia, but they will remember what it's like to engage in a lot of different areas. And if we can get that pattern or habit of mind, I think we're good. 

Wyatt: So Steve, you once told a story about sound and physics?

Steve: Yeah, actually a Gen Ed course changed the trajectory of my life and career. I was a senior and because I was a music major, like all music majors, I still had not completed all my Gen Ed by my senior year because we have this funny checkerboard way of wedging Gen Ed into our class schedule, and I was at the University of Utah and some friends of mine said, "You should go take this class called" — and this will date me somewhat — "The Physics of Hi-Fi'." And I said…and they said, "It counts as a science Gen Ed." So I went over and there was this crazy professor who made me think about music a science for the very first time. And within two or three weeks, I had bought a multi-track tape deck and probably that one Gen Ed course that I took in 1982 has had more effect on what my current assignment is here at SUU than all of the very, very traditional music education that I then had at the master's and doctoral level later on because it helped me see music in a different way than I ever had. And because of that I'm now the head of Music Technology here at Southern Utah University. So there's almost no telling what the impact of the right Gen Ed course at the right time taught be the right person can do to someone's life. It not only can create a thirst for lifelong learning, it may completely rearrange what you thought you were going to do. 

Taylor: That's awesome. Can I play off that just a little bit?

Meredith: Mhmm.

Taylor: So in the Stage and Screen we actually did a whole unit on sound, so we had the physics professor talking all about this and then with Lynn Vartan we went over…who is a percussion professor…

Meredith: Right. 

Taylor: And we had different instruments—Adam Lambert who's also just a…he's a music professor…and we had a student playing a trumpet, but then we had all the xylophones and…

Meredith: Percussion instruments? 

Taylor: Yeah. And we were able to look at what the key of A looks like on all of these different instruments and project it for the students so they could see the wavelength, but also all of the other little voices that are in there and it was just awesome. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Taylor: Way cool. And…but you've got to have your music people and a physics professor there to be able to show that. And then we ended up taking the students up to Abravanel Hall and we watched Raiders of the Lost Ark the movie, and while the symphony played the score. And then the next morning we went back for a tour and they showed us all of the physics behind Abravanel Hall, how it was designed and built, and it was awesome. 

Nickerson: I just have…I mean my cohorts pretty cool also, I mean I don't want him to get all depressed [All laugh], but mine will be really short. Just another example of physics and the arts, but we did it with waves of light. Or photography professor, while we were visiting and camping at Bryce Canyon National Park, put us into a cabin and then blacked all the windows and she turned the entire cabin into a pinhole cabin. And we actually made a tiny hole in the blackout, in the door, projected on a giant sheet that we had hung on the wall and we were inside the camera when we projected the image. It was pretty awesome. 

Meredith: That is pretty awesome.

Wyatt: This discussion about art and science is really interesting because it seems to me that the average music student sees the science class as a box to check off. 

Meredith: Of course. Absolutely. With no offense to my colleagues, of course. 

Wyatt: It's not interesting, it's not relevant, it's just one of "those other darn assignments I have to get through", and so when that music student goes to the science class, he or she is thinking, "What is the minimum effort I have to put in to graduate?" But now, once we start integrating these topics together and we light a fire under the student, it's, "Wow! This is relevant to me. This is interesting to me. I see how all of these things relate." And the effort goes up, and learning goes up, and life goes up. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: In your experience…

Meredith: People are able to make new connections that they never would have made otherwise.

Nickerson: And I think Steve was bright enough and fortunate enough to make that connection himself when he was in physics class as a senior. That's hard for freshman to do, and that's what Jumpstart can bring them—or any integrated education class—to help them make those first bridges. And like Dr. Taylor just said, once we help them make…there's evidence that those students that leave jumpstart continue to make those bridges and those connections as they move forward. But that first time to cross…and it's not just the arts and science, it's biology and business…it's all the disciplines. And they can see that crossover whatever it is because Jumpstart has so many, and then they take that with them. 

Wyatt: And then if you can do that their freshman year, how does that inform the sophomore, junior, and senior year? How does the change their entire experience? They've got all their writing requirements done so they're a better writer…

Taylor: Absolutely. A better researcher as well. 

Wyatt: They've got their General Ed…they've got their math done, so they've got those things. 

Nickerson: And then sometimes you see how basic math or basic research may help you as you go through your major, but to me more fascinating, more important, is "How does basic philosophy affect you as you go to your major?" That's a whole…or, "How does a basic understanding of the arts help you as you move on to your major of biology or business?" It's all relevant and it's all important. 

Taylor: And another huge piece that Jumpstart provides that shouldn't be overlooked is a large number of our students change their major as they go through school. So they're not necessarily coming to us knowing that they want to go into medicine right from the get-go. Jumpstart gives them a year to sample all these really neat areas in engaging ways and it's really interesting to watch the student slowly decide, "I want to go into art history" or "I want to go into physiology or agriculture." It's fascinating to see. And so that's one of the things that I have picked up from the year two/year three students is "What did this do for you?" And a lot of them said, "It helped me see where I wanted to be."

Meredith: Hmm. 

Taylor: Which is kind of nice. Instead of us saying, "You got to decide before you even get here or else we can't get you out the door in four years." That's not what's important to them. It was that experience to just kind of see what's out there. 

Wyatt: This is one of the defining features of an American higher education. Which is this General Education experience or the liberal arts, however we describe this broad, liberal education. And it's great to see at Southern Utah University so much effort, and so much of an investment being put into this bedrock piece, where so many universities are kind of neglecting it as, "Let's just get through this" or "Let's put the adjuncts in front of the bunch."

Taylor: It's a money maker for most universities. They're taking the money off of large section GE courses and they're using it in the higher level courses. We're doing just the opposite. 

Wyatt: Investing in the start.

Taylor: We're investing at the start and our retention numbers are very, very high. And also one of the interesting things that I'm seeing is, as far as retention numbers—so students who finish their freshman year and they come back in their sophomore year—is one of the things that hurt our retention numbers but in a great way is we've got a number of students who decided, "I'm going to go to China", or "I'm going to go to…" and they're doing the international language program and they're just exploring the world. And so as I'm in communication with these students, I'm like, "You know you're hurting my retention numbers, you jerks!" [All laugh] "But you know what? You're out there exploring."

Wyatt: "You're doing what we want you to do."

Taylor: Exactly. 

Nickerson: And when they come back from China, they'll be far, far better students and be contributing to SUU in a way that they could never have done before. 

Taylor: Yeah. 

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University, and today we've had in-studio guests John Taylor and Matt Nickerson from SUU's Jumpstart program. Thank you for joining us gentlemen. We'll be back again soon, bye bye.