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A Holistic Undergraduate Experience

  • We must provide a holistic undergraduate experience that equips our students with the knowledge, the skills, and the values to make a distinctive impact in the world. This requires that we reexamine the undergraduate curriculum, as well as focus on enhanced research opportunities, training in communication skills, and leadership development for our students.

     

    From the opening days of the university in 1912, Rice has recruited some of the most talented and capable undergraduate students in the country and offered them a rigorous and demanding academic experience, supported, since 1957, by an intimate and welcoming residential college system in which our students live and work together. As we seek to imagine and define the undergraduate experience in the next decade and beyond, it is clear that Rice must continue to offer one of the very best academic experiences possible, shaped by interactions with faculty as teachers and mentors. Indeed, the undergraduate program is a key part of the engine that drives the institution. Fundamental to our obligation as teachers is that we constantly reexamine both the substance of the knowledge we transmit and the pedagogies we employ.

    Furthermore, Rice must continue its commitment to recruiting the most exceptional students from across the nation and around the world. Our historical commitment to affordability must guide our decisions, including enhancing our offering of both need-based aid and merit scholarships to compete most effectively for the very best students. We must assure that the most talented students—irrespective of their financial circumstances—come to Rice and contribute to the diverse experiences we offer our undergraduates.

    The Call to Conversation asked us to take a more expansive view of our mission to educate our students, one that considers more carefully how we prepare them for success after they have graduated from Rice. In addition to providing our students with access to knowledge, we must also help develop the skills and create the experiences that will enable them to have an impact on their profession and in their community and to lead healthy and productive lives. Achieving these goals requires that we reevaluate our undergraduate curriculum, as well as focus on enhanced research opportunities, communication skills, and leadership development for our students.

    A Process for Evaluating Our Curriculum

    Responses to the Call to Conversation from all parts of our community indicate that we must again comprehensively examine our curriculum and assure that Rice offers the very best undergraduate education possible. The task is of great importance and must be shaped by an open, transparent, and orderly process. The dean of undergraduates, in collaboration and consultation with the faculty, will assume primary responsibility for structuring a multiyear process that commences with the questions posed in the Call to Conversation about the undergraduate experience.

    The first stage of the curriculum review process—slated to begin in spring 2006—asks the faculty to articulate more clearly its goals for the undergraduate program, building on what we have learned from the Call to Conversation. What is it that we want our students to be when they leave that they are not when they arrive at Rice? What knowledge and capabilities do we expect them to have? After articulating these goals with greater specificity, the second stage of the process will assess how well our current curriculum meets the defined objectives and identifies those areas of the curriculum that require additional resources and attention. The third and final stage of the process will focus on the development and implementation of detailed recommendations to assure our curriculum effectively evolves to fulfill the goals set by the faculty. Although this process will be led and decided by the faculty, it must be informed by the perspectives and experiences of the broader Rice community, including current and former students.

    As for other aspects of the educational enterprise, we must assess the wide range of services and opportunities we offer our students—from orientation to advising to career services to fellowships—to assure that we are providing the level of guidance and support our students need to achieve their goals both inside and outside the classroom. Essential to this process are a reimagining and revitalization of the relationship between “academics” and “student life.” For too long, these areas have inhabited separate spaces in the psychological and organizational structures of the university. Creation of the Office of the Dean of Undergraduates, however, unifies academic and student life under single leadership and signals Rice’s commitment to providing a holistic educational experience that delivers not only a bachelor’s degree but also thoughtfully integrated opportunities for intellectual, social, and moral development.

    Expanding Undergraduate Research Opportunities

    The range of complex challenges facing our world will be solved by students who are educated to understand the limits of the knowledge they are given in the classroom, who are capable of applying bodies of knowledge to new areas in search of creative solutions, and who can tackle open-ended and ambiguous problems that require original thought and analysis. These are the precise skills that undergraduates can acquire through research experiences, and our goal is to provide access to such opportunities for all of our students.

    Research in this context is understood very broadly as any opportunity to approach a problem in a critical and open-ended way, ranging from the scientific experiments in our science and engineering laboratories, to the design projects in our engineering classes and architecture studios, to the fieldwork and original analyses of our social scientists and humanists. In the same way that real-world problems do not have easy answers located in the proverbial back of the textbook, open-ended inquiry through research forces our students to discover and apply new bodies of knowledge to arrive at answers and solutions. This type of learning requires the ability to adapt standard theory to nonstandard settings and to develop a deep understanding of the implications and limitations of that theory. This sort of active engagement with theory rarely occurs in a traditional classroom setting, and undergraduate research has proved to be one of the most powerful means of providing such engagement. Most importantly, this kind of engagement prepares our students for the full range of unanticipated problems and challenges they will confront in their professional lives.

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    • The many opportunities for research available to undergraduate students at Rice is one of the fundamental reasons I chose to attend. Increasing those opportunities would have wide-ranging effects in not only recruiting talented students, but also furthering Rice’s strong emphasis on learning through research. —Alum

      One of the appealing things about Rice for me was the fact that it had graduate research capabilities but was small enough that undergraduates could get actively involved in this research. —Undergraduate Student

 

    In a first step toward expanding our already strong base of undergraduate research opportunities, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduates will open a new center in fall 2006 to provide community-based research opportunities for faculty and students to work alongside Houston-based community partners in addressing the wide range of challenges facing our city. This effort is predicated on the belief that Rice students should move beyond simply treating the symptoms of social ills through their admirable commitment to volunteerism and outreach. In addition to providing these service opportunities, we must help our students understand the root causes of social problems and encourage them to take a lead in proposing solutions our community and our nation so desperately need. The newly–established center will allow students to integrate meaningful off-campus volunteer experiences with an academic, research-based inquiry conducted alongside a community partner.

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    • I admit, as an undergraduate, I hardly knew what was ‘beyond the hedges.’ It would seem beneficial to Rice students to engage in service learning projects as part of their coursework so that they can see practical applications of their classroom learning and can learn real ways of contributing to the greater community. —Alum

 

    The role of research in undergraduate education must be recognized by the appropriate awarding of honors. The faculty should consider the possibility that our highest honors should be limited to those undergraduates who complete a research contribution worthy of that recognition. Our undergraduates should be encouraged by the time they graduate to accumulate deeper knowledge of their chosen subject areas and reflect that knowledge through research contributions, rather than the wanton pursuit of multiple majors.

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    • I feel that Rice should require a senior thesis from all graduating seniors. — Undergraduate Student

      I believe that the academic departments at Rice should take pride in the fact that they have students willing to dedicate a year to research solely for the sake of learning and pursuing a subject they love. I am surprised to learn that after all of that hard work, the fact that my peers and I graduated with honors in our discipline is not even documented on our diplomas. By all means, that is not the point of writing a thesis, but I feel as though the work should be recognized on our degrees, to say the very least. —Alum

The recent suggestion that we move to adopt “minors” in addition to majors will enhance the opportunities our students have to study more than one area (including at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management for undergraduate business courses), while also allowing them to invest more time in achieving deeper knowledge in a particular topic.

Emphasis on Communication Skills and Leadership Development

    To prepare our graduates to have an impact on a rapidly changing world, Rice should focus in the coming years on further emphasizing effective communication skills and more robust leadership development as essential features of the undergraduate experience.

    Communication skills—from writing to oral presentation—should appear more prominently in the curriculum, both in the general education and in the context of the specific disciplines. Our approach to communication must recognize that our students will succeed if they can effectively interact not only with colleagues in their own and other professional and academic disciplines, but also perhaps equally importantly, with nonacademic constituencies. In many fields, the days of the sole investigator are numbered, as problems today are being solved by teams of academicians, researchers, and policymakers working across disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Success in this environment will require our students to effectively communicate their knowledge and ideas to a wide and varied range of audiences within and outside the academy and their profession. We must provide and support the teaching of communication skills to our undergraduate students.

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    • Our undergraduate education is exceptional; however, I feel it lacks a few characteristics that are essential to excel in life after university. First and foremost, writing. Excellent written communication skills are such an important aspect of success in today’s world and yet we do not actively seek to make this a foundational element of a Rice education. Additionally, I believe that every student at some point in their degree track should encounter a course requiring them to make a presentation, an oral argument, or some other activity that engages them in oral communication. —Undergraduate Student

      I strongly agree with you in terms of developing writing/presenting skills. I know very well that half of making your ideas a success in this world is being able to present them effectively, whether in writing or in presenting at an academic conference. —Undergraduate Student

Without forwarding a specific notion of leadership, we must commit ourselves to each student's potential to make an impact in the world. We should take seriously our obligation to their ethical development as young people who understand their responsibilities to our society and our world. We must increase opportunities for the kinds of memorable, transformative experiences—in student organizations, in the community, or on the playing field—that hone the interpersonal skills our students will need to lead and work successfully with others.

Emphasis on Reaffirming the Residential College System

    Although the residential college system was part of Edgar Odell Lovett’s founding vision for Rice, it was not until 1957 that this vision became a reality. As we approach the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the college system, it is appropriate to reaffirm the important and distinctive role the residential colleges have played in shaping the undergraduate experience at Rice.

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    • The undergraduate college system was the single most important part of my education at Rice. I received excellent preparation for medical school, but the college system shaped the person I am today in many ways. —Alum

      Rice’ s college system is its greatest strength and needs to be maintained and strengthened. The college system ensures that students are exposed to a wide variety of cultures, ideas, and experiences (very few universities facilitate seniors and freshmen living side-by-side). —Alum

 

In anticipation of this half-century milestone, we are reexamining the colleges from a number of perspectives. Though still in progress, these efforts have indicated the importance of returning to the original ambitions of the college system: to foster democratic self-government, faculty–student interaction, and intellectual and cultural activity outside the classroom. These ideals remain fundamental to the distinctiveness and success of the Rice undergraduate experience. As the university plans for the expansion of the undergraduate population—including the goal of housing 80 percent of students on campus—we must take great care to ensure the vitality of the college system. This will require focused and creative efforts to sustain and reward faculty participation in college life and carefully planned additions to and renovations of college housing and university facilities.

The colleges have yet to identify an appropriate model for some integration of graduate students, although the inclusion of graduate students in the founding vision recognizes the important contributions that these mature students can provide to a community of undergraduates. Significant interest exists among a subset of graduate students in being engaged in college life.

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