Carnegie Mellon University
March 15, 2022

Dietrich College’s New General Education Launches

By Abby Simmons

A Message From Richard Scheines, Bess Family Dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences

scheines-richard.jpegDietrich’s GenEd has several distinctive features that I love. First, it gives students real exposure to multi- and interdisciplinary approaches to solving complicated problems, which is the way the world now works. 

Second, it takes a much more reflective approach to the idea of academic ‘breadth.’ Instead of requiring students to take yet another course in, say, math, in which they are asked to solve hundreds of problems, or a course in programming, where they are asked to pound out dozens of programs, they will take courses that reflect on the history and nature of mathematics and computation. What sort of questions does a discipline ask? What sort of methods does it use to answer those questions? What are its challenges?  We want to challenge students to reflectively understand the whole academic landscape, not just to grind through small pieces of it.  

Third, it takes the idea of non-classroom experiences that are crucial for development seriously.  We will provide opportunities (and support) for students to study abroad, do a meaningful internship, do community service, prepare for a career, and learn about health and wellness.  In short, we will focus on the whole student, not just the cognitive student.  

Fourth, it will integrate foundational skills like writing and data analysis through all four years of instruction. This will be a challenge to implement, but we have strong reason to believe that our students will emerge much stronger in writing and in data analysis as a result. 

And fifth, it takes the idea of objective assessment and iterative improvement seriously.  We won’t just assume that students will emerge better in writing — we will do pre-and post- assessments between the first and fourth year, and we will tweak the program until we can demonstrate that students are objectively improving more as writers than they did previously.

First-year students who entered Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences in the fall 2021 semester are the inaugural class to benefit from Dietrich College’s new General Education (GenEd). Building on Carnegie Mellon University’s strengths in learning science, the curriculum is designed to prepare students with the skills and competencies necessary to become dynamic 21st century professionals.

“Dietrich College’s GenEd frames learning outcomes that go beyond academic breadth to include skills necessary to communicate and collaboratively solve complex problems from interdisciplinary perspectives in a multicultural, global society,” said Sharon Carver, associate dean for educational affairs. “We also worked to bring Dietrich’s interdisciplinary strengths and technology assets explicitly into the curriculum and into how we approach iterative program assessment and refinement.”

Plans for the new GenEd began several years ago and involved a steering committee comprised of representatives from academic departments, the Dietrich College Dean’s Office and the Office of the Vice Provost for Education. Over 100 members of the faculty on a number of sub-committees supported this work, and faculty and staff throughout the university provided feedback throughout the process.

Carnegie Mellon’s approach to general education allows individual schools and colleges to design and implement distinctive educational programs within the context of their own domain. While this approach offers a great deal of latitude, each must also align with institutional and accreditation standards.

Developed using evidence-based research on high-impact educational practices, the Dietrich College GenEd gives students the opportunity to delve into 15 learning areas relevant to success in multiple disciplines, as well as to engage in personalized experiences in and out of the classroom.

“We chose these areas because they are essential skills for work, citizenship and life,” said Colleen Libertz, General Education program manager. “They are critical for everyone who graduates from Dietrich College.”

The GenEd also aligns with the university’s Core Competency Initiative aimed at helping all CMU students develop foundational core competencies such as communication, collaboration and inclusion.

“The Core Competency Initiative strives to provide all CMU students, faculty and programs the resources and tools for key core competency areas. Whether integrated within a student’s courses or program or complementing formal academic study through individualized engagement for personalized growth and professional development, our aspiration is that all in our community will benefit and learn through the initiative resources,” said Amy Burkert, vice provost for education.

Distinctive Features

Dietrich College’s GenEd extends far beyond completing a list of required courses.

“Our approach begins with holistic student advising and helping students make connections between their goals and the GenEd courses. The learning developed through these opportunities is then synthesized in a student’s major coursework and applied through experiential learning opportunities,” Carver said. 

Broadening academic advising is a long-term goal of the new GenEd. This new advising model is being developed to help students intentionally grow in academic, professional and personal spheres. The Academic Advisory Center, which had primarily focused on supporting first-year students, will more fully integrate its work with departmental academic advisors, faculty mentors and students throughout all of their undergraduate years.

Experiential learning is also an integral part of Dietrich’s GenEd, and a variety of programs and funding opportunities are available to make it possible for every Dietrich student to participate in undergraduate research, internships, community service and study abroad. Students are strongly encouraged to take time to apply their skills in a relevant, real-world context. In December 2021, Kim Piatt was named Dietrich College’s first director of experiential learning. In this full-time role, she will help students identify meaningful opportunities that connect to coursework; involve a mentoring relationship with a supervisor or instructor; and embed time for critical reflection on personal, professional and academic growth.

This video includes photos taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Course Options

Undergraduate students take five GenEd courses in their first year designed to introduce foundational skills in communication and data analysis, explore disciplines within both the humanities and the social sciences, and attack a “Grand Challenge” through a multi-disciplinary seminar designed to engage students in critical thinking and collaboration.

First-year student Sam Ostrowski appreciates that the number of potential pathways within these course categories fosters an interactive and unique freshman experience.

“As a Dietrich student, I have taken complete advantage of these new changes by immersing myself in psychology and linguistics courses and delving deeper into my passions in the humanities and social sciences. The breadth of subjects and opportunities offered by the GenEd program at Dietrich is absolutely vital to my success as a student,” Ostrowski said.

Via the GenEd, students investigate an additional four foundational skills courses covering computational thinking, contextual thinking, intercultural and global inquiry, and scientific inquiry. Students also explore disciplinary perspectives in the arts, logic/mathematical reasoning and one of the following: business, design or engineering. These courses give students the opportunity to explore the breadth that CMU has to offer and learn from experts across campus.

To round out the GenEd curriculum, students will explore courses where they will consider diverse perspectives on justice and injustice. Finally, the senior capstone serves as a culminating experience to undergraduate study in Dietrich College to help students synthesize and apply all they have learned while engaging in a project of their own design.

World-Class Faculty

Faculty from all areas of the college as well as others from across the university have played an essential role in the GenEd program development, and a standing Steering Committee with broad representation is responsible for the implementation and continued refinement.

In addition, during its inaugural semester, more than 120 faculty members from across Carnegie Mellon University taught in the new GenEd, with representation from tenure stream, teaching and special faculty.

Not counting First-Year Writing, 65 Dietrich College faculty and 21 faculty from other schools and colleges taught GenEd courses in fall 2021. Of Dietrich College faculty, 37 were tenure track (including 17 full professors), 19 were teaching track, eight were special faculty and one was administrative.

In addition, 21 faculty from other schools and colleges taught in the GenEd, including five tenure track, 12 teaching track and three special faculty.

Yoshihiro Yasuhara, associate teaching professor of Japanese, teaches “Anime: Visual Interplay Between Japan and the World.” To align with the new GenEd’s “Disciplinary Perspectives: The Arts” category, Yasuhara reconceptualized the course to focus on the use of sound, color character design and filming techniques. Previously, the course’s main focus was on plots, themes and storylines.

“We explore anime as a compelling art medium not only in Japan but also across the world, leading a wide range of viewers to respond to major questions as they relate to underrepresented minorities, social-ecological problems, and the post-apocalyptic worldview on humanity, among others,” Yasuhara said. “This course also analyzes the visual potentials of anime to answer a main question: ‘What can anime do as an alternative to live action films?’”

Faculty interested in proposing a course for the GenEd should contact their department head.

Assessment and Iteration

Joanna Dickert, assistant dean for educational experience assessment, is leading efforts for an ongoing and comprehensive assessment of the GenEd program. This assessment is designed to help the college understand the degree to which students are reaching the designated learning outcomes across the GenEd.

“As we’ve implemented the GenEd assessment, it’s been important to define what it is, and what it is not,” Dickert said. “It is designed to facilitate understanding of student progress and use data to inform program improvement while maintaining student privacy. It is not intended to evaluate individual students or faculty, but rather to understand and improve aggregate progress related to skill development within and across courses.”

Assessment data will be gathered from a number of data sources, including institutional and college analytics related to course enrollment and experiential learning, direct measures of student knowledge and skills, student artifacts from General Education courses, quantitative and qualitative data from alumni regarding their Dietrich College GenEd experience, and student surveys aligned with General Education outcomes.

Department of English doctoral candidates Richard Branscomb and Laura McCann served as Graduate Assessment Fellows for the fall 2021 semester. Nuria Ballesteros Soria, doctoral candidate in Modern Languages, joined the team as an additional Graduate Assessment Fellow for the spring 2022 semester.

In addition, Dickert and Libertz launched a Student Advisory Board in fall 2021 comprised of 14 first-year students who provide critical feedback and ideas to improve the student experience and help shape the future of the GenEd.

“One of the key features of the new GenEd is that it is an iterative model, and we will adjust it over time,” said Libertz. “Receiving real-time feedback from the Student Advisory Board is critical to ensuring that student voices impact the refinement process.”