The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) began a new initiative to improve the capacity of undergraduate students to use evidence to solve problems and make decisions. This program is called Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS). The program awards twelve scholars from across the nation based on case study proposals from the applicants that encompass the goals of the initiative.
Higher education has been looking at new, innovative ways to engage students in critical thinking skills. Proficiencies in these capacities are foundational to liberal education if the students who study these areas are to become engaged and productive citizens according to the AAC&U. The University of North Dakota (UND) has taken strides to approach education in new ways. In fact UND became the only university to have two professors awarded as a STIRS scholar, and both from the College of Arts & Sciences.
"I believe liberal education is the heart of the American university system," said Tami Carmichael, Director of Integrated Studies at UND and recipient of the STIRS Scholar Award. "This education makes you richer as a persona and the capacity to be successful in your career."
Ryan Zerr who also received the award works in the Mathematics department.
Both award recipients work in the College of Arts and Sciences. "The humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences are essential components to all students' education at UND, regardless of their major," said Debbie Storrs, dean of the UND College of Arts & Sciences. "The fact that two of our dynamic faculty, one from the humanities and one from math, have been selected to shape the dialogue on a national scale reflects the quality of our faculty and the importance of our College."
Higher education professionals are awarded for their work quite frequently, but it is not every day you hear about two professionals from the same college being awarded in a nation wide initiative to develop innovative case studies.
"If you can study a subject which helps you learn how to figure things out then you can apply that knowledge to a huge variety of different concepts," said Zerr.
Both Carmichael and Zerr are heavily involved with programs that are designed specifically for first year students. The case studies they will develop over the next year with the other scholars from across the country could be used for first year students. Each of their case studies is very different, but they have the same principal of challenging people who utilize the case study to think critically and look at real life events and how to solve them in innovative ways.
Carmichael's proposed case study is on the affects of Tar Sand's pipelines.
"The proposed Alberta Tar Sand pipeline is being rallied against by a variety of people including Native American groups worried about the impact of these pipelines being put through their reservation lands," Carmichael said.
There are two sides to the issue. Environmentalists say the pipelines can cause damage to the land, however, industry argument is that the pipelines are the safest way to transport resources because the only other way to transport these resources is by train. Her case study examines this issue and all the potential impacts on different communities and environments.
The subject of Zerr's case study is very different from Carmichael's, but it is one that also looks at an issue that could have a variety of different solutions.
The idea of the case study is to look at the situation that existed right after the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The condition during that time involved having to decide how to develop census data to determine how many representatives each state should get.
"The case study is meant to make students realize there are a lot of ways this can be done," said Zerr. "The students job is to wrestle with the same sort of question using the same sort of information like census results and language in the constitution."
"It teaches classes to use basic mathematical ideas in sophisticated ways," said Zerr.
Both Carmichael and Zerr believe in the STIRS initiative goals and have already been incorporating those innovative ideas at UND and now as STIRS scholars with their award winning case studies.
"This is the style of teaching I believe in where you give students the opportunity to make connections about things in the real world that are or will have an impact on them," said Carmichael.
Carmichael works with the integrated studies program, which has been creating an interdisciplinary learning community for students for over 20 years at UND.
Zerr also has helped with the new approach to education in coordinating the first year seminar program, which gave first year students options of classes that allowed them to connect with their peers and instructor in an easier way.
"The program is meant to provide academic courses on unconventional topics students may find interesting," said Zerr. The classes are also meant to incorporate skills and practice with issues new students often have and how they can become connected with the institution."
UND strives to be innovative with its' approach to general education and Carmichael and Zerr reinforce that as STIRS scholars with their award winning case studies.
Arts & Sciences
Ryan Zerr, professor of Mathematics Tami Carmichael, associate professor and director of Humanities and Integrated Studies