New cross-disciplinary degree would be Canada’s first

Geoff McMaster

There is a new kind of degree on the horizon for the University of Alberta, designed to educate the citizen of tomorrow.

Mikael Adolphson, a professor of Japanese cultural studies, chemist Glen Loppnow and sociologist Richard Westerman are bridging faculties to build what they call an honours academy, a broad-based interdisciplinary program that will immerse students over five years in a range of disciplines before they declare a major. With a grant from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund, Adolphson and Loppnow will develop the program over the next three years.

The concept is based on the honours college in the United States, which has shown dramatic success in both attracting students and preparing them for an increasingly interdisciplinary workplace. The U of A’s honours academy would be the first such program in Canada, says Adolphson, and would be “a chance for Alberta to really put itself on the map.

“Students graduating from honours colleges in the U.S. get employment or go to graduate school in 98 to 99 per cent of cases. So the success rate is beyond any doubt.”

Adolphson, who witnessed the rise of one such college when on faculty at the University of Oklahoma, says the model is perfect for a public research-intensive university interested in attracting the best and brightest students.

“Oklahoma was of course very famous for football, not for education,” says Adolphson. “But the first thing the new president did when he arrived was start an honours college, and as a result, Oklahoma got known all of a sudden for academics. Within three years, it had the highest number of national merit scholars (high-school scholarship recipients) of any public university in the United States.”

He says today’s students are expected to specialize “too heavily, too early” and don’t have the broad foundation that a liberal arts education provides. “We want to educate a new citizen, with broad knowledge, who can be a bridge between these different disciplines, who can talk the language of science and also the social sciences or humanities.”

Adolphson says he met recently with a group of prominent business leaders who all agreed on one point: while employers need graduates with specialized knowledge, they also need team players who can work with people trained in different fields.

He pointed to the U of A’s new certificate program in computer gaming, which offers a specialized degree in addition to courses requiring interdisciplinary problem solving: “That’s what we need for our future entrepreneurs and citizens, whatever they will be.”

Adolphson and his colleagues will spend the next three years researching the potential impact of the program, surveying high-school students across the province to assess demand, developing courses and recruiting potential instructors.

“We have a very strong public research university, and comparatively cheap tuition, but we may not always be attracting the top students, even from Alberta. So this could be one way of doing that. We’re looking for students with the passion to become these informed citizens, these bridging figures.”

The program will be research-oriented. Students start with a problem and bring in whatever disciplinary approaches are needed to solve it, rather than starting from within a discipline as a point of departure. “In the first year, they would take most of the required courses, then after that would go into any faculty they want.”

The program would conclude with a capstone project in which students prepare a presentation attempting to solve a problem.

Adolphson says he’d also like to “invert the pyramid of class sizes,” allowing students to begin the program with small seminars that encourage more direct interaction with faculty.

“We want to keep students here,” he says. “We have the best economy in Canada, and we’re losing some of them, especially in the south, to places like McGill and UBC. If we do get an honours academy, I’m absolutely convinced we’ll reverse the trend. We’ll be snatching up students from other provinces.”

The Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund was created to improve teaching and learning effectiveness. The fund supports a diverse range of initiatives specifically focused on creating exceptional and life-changing university experiences for students.