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SUES proposes “helix” courses

Stanford’s traditional system of self-contained courses could soon be upended by recommendations by the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), which advocates the introduction of “helix courses” to address “curricular incoherence” in undergraduate coursework.

The SUES report describes the proposed helix system as “conceptually intertwined” groupings of three or more courses, with a common focus on “questions and concerns that influence and are influenced by multiple disciplines.” Students would take as many of the courses as they desire, and would be able to do so in no predetermined order.

“One of the things that struck us in the course of our investigation was how segmented [and] how silo-ized students’ lives were,” said James Campbell, history professor and co-chair of the SUES committee. “They had majors, General Education Requirements [and] they were doing some service work perhaps, but rarely were those experiences coming together in some creative or synthetic way.”

According to Campbell, the report emphasizes “adaptive learning” and “fostering connections” because rapid global changes mean students will likely confront challenges that cannot currently be foreseen.

“Those students who will flourish will be those who are not simply guarded from professional obsolescence by their study, but those who have the capacity to continue to learn and connect the things they know,” Campbell said.

The SUES report noted a positive response to the helix concept from faculty members, adding that the program should pose fewer problems in implementation than other recommendations advanced by the SUES committee.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam, however, wrote in an email to The Daily that there currently exist “a few guiding principles, but not a lot of detail.”

According to Elam, Faculty College — a program started this year to establish cross-disciplinary teaching endeavors — will play a role in developing these helix courses. He also highlighted the efforts of his office to help coordinate the program’s agenda.

“We expect to have a section of Explore Courses as well as space on our new and improved Undergraduate Academic Life website devoted to helix offerings,” Elam said.

Christopher Gardner, a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, will join the Faculty College for the 2012-13 academic year. He described the project as establishing a “deliverable design that creates a class or set of classes.”

Repeating Campbell’s sentiment that solving future challenges will involve rigorous and multidisciplinary thinking skills, Gardner said, “Stanford in particular is best placed to approach this kind of learning because it has seven incredible schools in such close proximity.”

Based on his specialty of nutrition science, Gardner expressed support for a food-oriented helix, or potentially a food systems minor. He argued that a uniting theme such as food security would make for “more compelling and better helix courses.”

Other faculty expressed more cautious sentiments.

Computer science professor Terry Winograd stressed his support for multidisciplinary programs, but questioned the viability of the helix program, asking “whether or not faculty would shift their courses to make them accessible to non-majors, which is a big thing to ask of faculty.”

Gardner, however, remained optimistic about the future of the helix proposal, highlighting the benefits of exposing individuals to new material and indeed new ways of thinking. Discussing a food summit at which speakers were asked to give a hypothesis on an issue, Gardner said he noted different procedural methods across departments.

“I remember Debra Dunn, who’s at the d.school, coming to me and saying, ‘Look, we don’t have hypotheses in the d.school. We run an iterative design process and look into peoples’ motivations,’” Gardner said. “And it was stunning to me to think, ‘Ah, there’s a totally different way of thinking — no wonder I may be stunted in my own productivity because I don’t expose myself to these cultures.’”

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