stealth GE

A couple of months ago I came across an article in the San José Mercury news about Dragutin Petkovic, a computer scientist at San Francisco State University.  For half a decade or so he’s been getting systematic about teaching teamwork, which employers consider the weak link in the programmers produced by higher education.  As Dragutin explained it to me over breakfast last week, big software projects “don’t implode because Java failed”; it’s because teams unravel, missing deadlines and hand-offs, blowing budgets, foundering on their internal differences.

So with NSF funding and colleagues from sibling universities in Florida and Germany, he has developed capstone courses whose final projects put intricate, measurable demands on students’ ability to collaborate.

They learn techniques of listening, communication, and conflict resolution, amid the lessons in programming.  Analytics tools count each international team’s email correspondence, and “commits” of software code relative to a timeline, to provide early warning to a team off track.

And these aren’t mere exercises:  a relative latecomer to higher ed who once employed computer scientists himself, Dragutin emphasizes to his students that the experience of innovating and problem-solving as members of a global team – while they’re still in school – will set them apart when it’s time to get a job.

Well, these are the proficiencies we want all our students to graduate with, and not just the computer science majors who land Dagutin in a capstone course.  I asked him whether his students came in prepared by their lower-division GE to work in teams this way, and got a blank look.  Not only do they not, but hardly anyone would expect them to.

That’s not a criticism of GE at San Francisco State:  most of his students transferred in.  It’s not even a criticism of Bay Area community colleges:  they don’t create the GE they teach for transfer, we do.

As Dragutin and I talked, I pictured a sequence to develop teamwork that would parallel the way we want writing to work:

  writing teamwork
lower division, prior to transfer: across the disciplines across the disciplines(basic communication , writing, e-mail etiquette, speaking)
upper division, after transfer: in the discipline in the discipline(specific tools related to their disciplines; specific project development and management methods, formats, templates used, etc.)

Later the same day I joined a group convened by the Irvine Foundation to inform its efforts to expand Linked Learning – the deliberate mingling of liberal education with pre-professional training.  Among those attending was Deborah Bird, who directs the Design Technology pathway at Pasadena City College.  This is a traditional program in Career-Technical Education, so in theory her graduates aren’t doing GE in preparation for upper-division work with the CSU.

Now as it happens, for the week or so before this meeting I was fielding a number of questions about intermediate algebra.  More specifically, why so few of our students seem able to learn it.  We’ve been exploring alternate ways to develop their quantitative reasoning, but the work is early, and for most of our students it remains the Battle of the Somme:  we just send wave after wave of them up out of the trenches and into the machine gun fire, figuring eventually some should get through.

So against this carnage I heard Deborah talking about what her design students have to do:  they get a problem about packaging.  Since this is design it has to be attractive, but they also need to take into account other factors:  how to shape it so the least material is wasted, how to keep it light and stackable for efficient shipping.  All these qualities interact on continuous scales of desirability, familiar to mathematicians as an optimization problem, of the kind you’d find in a calculus course.  Calculus.  A notch or two above intermediate algebra, and not as the rote manipulation of symbols to prepare them for transfer to the CSU, but as something that helped them solve an immediate, relevant problem.

The CTE design courses at Pasadena City College, like the computer science capstones at San Francisco State, develop the broadly transferable proficiencies we want from liberal learning, and in particular, from general education in the lower division.  Only unlike most lower-division GE, they begin with the problems students need and want to solve, not with the abstract principles that may later get applied in hypothetical “word problems.”

It pains me to point out they have something else in common:  the capstone is available only to majors, and the design courses aren’t approved for GE.

So on the state’s radar of transferable GE courses, both are invisible.


One thought on “stealth GE

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