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A new vision for undergraduate education

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | January 5, 2017

I appreciate David Zilberman’s apt and inspiring message (Re-energizing UC Berkeley). We need new thinking if we are to remain the great university we have been in the past. I’m using this blog to focus on what I consider an exciting and needed innovation in undergraduate teaching. An innovation that can be used to help fulfill Professor Zilberman’s vision that “Berkeley is perfectly placed to be a global center in sustainable development.”

At a time of falling budgets but rising numbers of undergraduates, faculty have a responsibility to give the undergraduates we are privileged to interact with the teaching experience they expect and deserve. If you are faculty and like me you get numerous emails from students pleading to join a class that has been capped because of budget constraints, please bring the new courses described below to the attention of undergraduates. If you are an undergraduate reading this, please think about the courses and discuss them with friends.

studentsThe campus leadership is looking for new innovations in teaching. “Vertical learning” is new pedagogical vision where faculty, GSI and undergraduate Scholar Teachers work as a coordinated team. It is a model that already works in some other parts of the campus. I want to emphasize that Scholar Teachers are not designed to undercut GSIs, but they are a win-win for GSIs and undergraduate leaders.

Over the past 20 years, as the faculty responsible for the largest class in the School of Public Health, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with well over 20,000 Cal undergrads. Until last spring the Health and Medical Apprenticeship Program (PH 116) had 500 to 600 students every semester with 100 to 200 on the waiting list. Without knowing it, the undergrads had evolved a highly professional and successful example of vertical learning. The most experienced undergraduate leaders mentored others who led about 30 discussion sections.

Prior to coming to Berkeley I had taught in Cambridge University. When I took over PH 116 15 years ago, I assumed it was the new normal. Last spring I was surprised to discover that PH 116 did not comply with the definitions set by Senate committees for a faculty facilitate course. Unexpectedly, PH 116 was reclassified as a DeCal.

Before this interruption, I had been so inspired by the professionalism and commitment of the undergraduates in PH 116 that Dr. Federico Castillo and I piloted a new class in the spring of 2107, now called A Sustainable Word: Challenges and Opportunities. It will also be developed into a new example of vertical learning

With the help of colleagues and the Center for Teaching and Learning, we are building PH 116 and A Sustainable World into an exciting new example of vertical learning. The undergrads running discussion sections will now be trained as Scholar Teachers working as a team with GSIs. Unfortunately, the positive decisions made by the relevant committees were too late to reclassify the DeCal for the coming 2017 spring semester. But unless something unexpected happens, HMAP – PH 116 and A Sustainable World should be up and running by the Fall 2017. I will also be applying to register the two courses as breadth courses.

As David says, we face “an emergency that requires daring and extra effort. All of us need to think how we can help campus ride these rough waters.” My experience is that faculty can learn from the creativity and commitment to build new and creative teaching partnerships.

Vertical learning is not appropriate for the majority of courses. It is. however, highly appropriate for courses such as PH 116 and A Sustainable Word, which involve undergrads as partners in designing and implementing courses attempting to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities they will meet as professional (PH 116) or citizens (A Sustainable World).

The basic premise of A Sustainable World is that the next 50 years will be profoundly different from the experience of the past 50 years that older faculty like myself experienced:

  • Will human activity and human numbers damage irreversibly the fragile biosphere on which al life depends?
  • Will some conflict somewhere escalate into a nuclear war perhaps threatening all peoples?

Dr. Castillo and I found that many of the most talented faculty on the campus are willing to teach in A Sustainable World. However, the true success of the pilot course last spring was that the students were partners devising and answers to the problems that faculty presented on such topics as climate change, terrorism, feeding 10 billion people, or loss of biodiversity.

Dr Castillo and I are also involved in launching a Planetary Health Center of Expertise. The center brings together researchers, teachers and students from all 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.  A Sustainable World may become the model for other campuses. We have also begun developing an online version that could be used in Africa and elsewhere.

The generation David Zilberman and I represent developed nuclear weapons. It is also the one where a bipedal mammal with a big brain, clever hands and an unusual sex life has become the first living creature in three billion years to exceed the ecological capacity of our fragile, finite planet. The current generation of undergraduates is the first to face such existential problems – and the last to be able to solve them.

Please help build new vertical learning, faculty, GSI, Scholar Teacher partnerships and a new vision of undergraduate learning.