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A vision of the future of teaching and learning in CALS

The work of a committee doesn’t often garner headlines, especially when it carries such an inscrutable appellation as the CALS Academic Affairs Visioning Committee. But don’t let the name fool you. For the past seven months, the 21-member group has been engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about the future of the CALS educational experience. We asked the committee’s chair, life sciences communication professor Dietram Scheufele, to share some highlights from its final report (available online at www.cals.wisc.edu/aavc/reports.html) and how it may set the tone for innovations in teaching and learning for years to come.

Q: Can you help people understand what this committee was charged to do?
A: The committee was convened back in November 2009 by Interim Dean Irwin Goldman, who charged it with crafting “a new vision for the structure, organization and missions of academic affairs within CALS … [and] to sketch out what our academic affairs enterprise might look like in the future.” In other words, we had a fairly broad charge, which was both challenging and exciting.

Q: Does this relate to the search for a new associate dean in this area?
A: Yes, that was one of our specific goals—to develop a set of recommendations to the college leadership that will serve as the basis for a PVL for a CALS Associate Dean for academic affairs. The college plans to conduct a national search to fill that position this fall.

Q: So how did you go about defining that job?
The committee had long discussions with students, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni, employers and other stakeholders to gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges and opportunities related to academic affairs in CALS. We were really trying to distill answers to some broad questions: First, what makes CALS CALS? In other words, what are the college’s core values and traditions that should be amplified or at least not compromised in the future? Second, what knowledge, skills and aptitudes should the next generation of CALS and UW students gain before they graduate, and how can CALS create the teaching and learning landscape necessary to prepare them well for a rapidly changing world? And third, what are the potential challenges related to academic affairs that the college is facing, both immediate and down the road?

Q: So what makes CALS CALS?
A: I think a lot of the things that make CALS unique are intangibles, and the report only scratches the surface of what gets folks in CALS excited on a daily basis. What we focused on in the report, therefore, were a few areas that we think hold particular promise for our college or present challenges. This includes the abundance of opportunities for CALS students, both graduate and undergraduate, to work directly with faculty, to be part of lab and field research, and to gain practical experiences through internships and other hands-on training before entering the job market. Another strength area of CALS is the co-existence of agriculture and the life sciences as foci that are central to the land-grant mission of the university. And we are surrounded by highly ranked units in engineering, medicine and the liberal arts—few other land-grants the same combination of disciplines on one campus.

Q: What did you identify as the key challenges for maintaining that strength?
A: One of the issues that the committee discussed at length was how to maintain the near- and long-term value of a CALS degree. Our alumni have been able to count on the fact that a degree from CALS or the UW gives them an edge in being well-prepared for that first job. But how do you maintain that value edge 20 years from now? Knowledge changes fast, and the reality is that the jobs our students are likely to be doing 20 years from now are in areas that haven’t even been discovered today. So the key challenge facing our college and the university is to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet.

Q: Sounds easy enough. What might that mean for CALS?
Part of the answer is to expand on what we already do very well and to provide students with the practical experiences and expertise that employers are looking for in a college graduate. That means focusing on writing and communication skills, research and internship experiences, and the ability to critically evaluate and solve problems based on outstanding training in their discipline. But the long-term value of a CALS degree will also depend on our graduates’ intellectual adaptability and flexibility, especially in a world where new scientific breakthroughs can quickly make existing knowledge obsolete. Just look at this week’s news about synthetic biology—that’s the kind of issue our graduates may never study while they’re here, but they’ll have to deal with it in their careers.

Q: How should our graduates be prepared to deal with emerging science like synthetic biology?
A: Something like synthetic biology raises issues that go beyond the scope of scientific advancement. It requires society to navigate through a range of issues, balancing the potential of new science with moral, political and practical concerns. Ideally, CALS graduates will be prepared not just to contribute to cutting-edge science, but to be leaders as we take on the bigger questions about our public commitment to science and technology.

Q: Did the committee find other ways that CALS can enhance that preparation?
A: If we look at the long-term issues we face as a society, what comes to mind are global warming, oil spills, the future of food, human health and a host of other areas that folks in CALS deal with on a daily basis. So in many ways, we’re already extremely well positioned. But what also became clear in our discussions is that the solutions to many of these problems are not merely disciplinary ones. The answers to the most pressing issues we’re facing as a society will emerge from collaborations across disciplines.
Our students already recognize this and build curricula for themselves that take full advantage of the expertise across the disciplines in the college and the university. Some of the committee’s recommendations focus on creating more curricular flexibility within CALS, making it easier for students to cross college boundaries when taking classes and for faculty to teach interdisciplinary courses. The new CALS B.S. degree structure that the college passed earlier this spring is a great first step, but we need to continue to find ways that even more students can take advantage of all the great things our college has to offer.

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