Sam Matson flashed a picture of two rocks on the wall-size screen in front of about 100 students taking his Introduction to Physical Geology class. Which rock, he asked, is volcanic?
The students picked up their clickers. Results were on the screen within moments, and 76 percent chose the correct rock.
That tiny teaching moment reflects a sea change in how Boise State University is educating students, beginning this school year.
After more than three years of study and discussion, Boise State launched its Foundational Studies Program this semester. The program focuses on moving beyond pouring facts and theories into students heads with a structure that makes critical thinking, innovation, teamwork, effective writing and communication essential outcomes of classes.
That means, for example, that students taking a geology class should come away with a deeper understanding of what science is and how it works. Understanding the process of science is just part of being a responsible citizen, Matson said.
The program reaches across all disciplines in the undergraduate curriculum. Implementing it cost $600,000. The university funded the program largely by finding savings elsewhere and reallocating money, said Sharon McGuire, vice provost of undergraduate studies.
Jamie MacMillan, executive director of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, says Boise States move is an example of transformative education in Idaho. The foundation awarded the program $50,000.
Boise State embarked on the change after faculty began looking for ways to provide better instruction, McGuire said.
The university looked at programs elsewhere as it crafted the new approach. McGuire said the university found none that had done what Boise State is doing, a go big or go home effort at institution-wide change across an entire curriculum at once.
The new curriculum was influenced by the concerns of business leaders who worry that students arent ready for the workplace, in part because they lack essential understanding of teamwork and communication, McGuire said.
Boise State faculty and administrators listened to university President Bob Kustra, who talked about the need to revamp education for the 21st-century student who requires a faster approach than previous generations needed to keep engaged.
And they tried to define what an educated person should be.
Its not just about learning a field or discipline, said Lisa Brady, associate professor of history. Its about how all the information we are exposed to every day is connected.
Foundational Studies is reshaping how classes are taught.
For example, the clickers gave Matson immediate feedback on his students knowledge. He engages the students in their own learning, moving away from the passive approach of lecturers lecturing and students taking notes. He casts his students in the role of scientists, trying to use their knowledge to ferret out answers an approach that goes beyond just getting the right answer for a geology class.
We do much more in-class activity, and Im keeping tabs on students process of thought, Matson said.
Brady said up to a quarter of her class in world history is dedicated to helping students understand why history is studied and how researchers go about their work. She said she wants students thinking like historians.
Her emphasis on revolutions, for example, goes beyond Russian and American into what she calls the worlds oldest revolution: the development of agriculture 12,000 years ago, which led to the creation of cities, the rise of nation-states and wars over resources.
We always try to make the large connections, she said.
The new program includes two required courses, each with several versions, in which students put their critical thinking skills to work. The classes, called University Intellectual Foundations 100 and 200, explore themes and ethics, diversity and internationalization.
For example, one of the Foundations 100 versions considers the concept of the balanced life and studies the interplay between work and leisure and how they have changed over time, McGuire said.
The course brings several disciplines to bear on a subject, and students are involved in group projects.
Foundational Studies also includes an evaluation of how well the classes impart information beyond the course basics to help professors see how well the new approach is working. Groups of instructors will look at student-written samples, video clips and other examples of student work to determine how well the students are meeting the larger goals of critical thinking, innovation and teamwork.
Matson evaluates his success in teaching not just from finals, quizzes and midterm exams which are still used to determine students grades but from low-level activities such as students clicking their answers to questions about rocks or becoming involved in a video project on Idaho geology.
Foundational Studies went live about five weeks ago. Students, who are the focus of this change, appear to be evaluating it themselves.
I expected more classification of rocks and going on field trips, said Beth Sutton, 36, a sophomore from Mountain Home, of Matsons class. Instead she is learning broader scientific concepts, such as plate tectonics.
Brandon Fudge, a 19-year-old sophomore from Boise, said Matson is working to engage students in learning. He makes it really interesting so you dont have to think, Why am I here?
But if the class is supposed to send Fudge into the world with a greater understanding of what science means, that isnt happening at least not yet.
I havent seen very much overarching theme, he said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts