‘Discovery’ Curriculum Pushes Students to Find What’s Next

August 17, 2016

College faculty and administrators articulate important educational goals, including instilling the values of a liberal-arts education; readying students to be thoughtful, productive citizens of the world; and preparing graduates for careers and lifelong learning. Yet there is growing uncertainty about how U.S. undergraduate education is actually working, particularly regarding the role of technology and the need to respond to globalization.

Two questions repeatedly asked about undergraduate education are: Does it adequately prepare students for the future? And is it truly a good value for the money? Too often, students can obtain their degrees with minimal engagement, and faculty and academic staff may be reluctant to try new ways of educating undergraduates, especially if they believe the institution’s financial and professional incentives reflect other priorities.

Fortunately there is an effective way of responding to those issues and concerns. That is by making discovery and innovation an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum.

Having experimented with such a model during the last six years at a large public university in Hong Kong, I can describe how the model raised educational expectations considerably. Specifically, there is compelling evidence that building a curriculum around the goal of giving all students the opportunity to make original discoveries in their fields significantly enhances the undergraduate experience. Moreover, such a curriculum provides new prospects for faculty and academic-staff professional development.

The City University of Hong Kong’s "discovery-enriched curriculum" was designed for the transition of Hong Kong’s public universities, in 2012, from three-year to four-year undergraduate degrees. CityU reframed its educational objectives around the simple idea that each undergraduate would have the chance to make an original discovery in her or his field, complementing mastery of basic disciplinary knowledge and skills.

Fully integrating discovery into the curriculum moves original undergraduate scholarship from an add-on experience for particularly motivated students to a core competency for all students, with lifelong benefits. When a student does original scholarship, no matter how incremental, the student explores the unknown under the guidance of a knowledgeable mentor and capitalizes on the resources of the larger learning environment. The student learns to take measured scholarly risks as an integral part of the undergraduate experience, which promotes curiosity and builds self-confidence.

The curriculum also reflects our dynamic, globalized world by placing a high premium on creativity and imagination. Much of today’s knowledge and expertise is available on the web. The new model accommodates what does not yet exist: the next knowledge.

Tangible evidence of the program’s impact is apparent in students’ work, in levels of mentor engagement, and in campus investments: Some student contributions are patentable. From having no CityU undergraduates on the university’s patent disclosures in 2011-12, CityU now has several dozen filings with the Hong Kong government by undergraduate inventors. Similarly, the success of CityU’s students in prestigious regional and international competitions, ranging from engineering and biomedical science to film and social entrepreneurship, has risen substantially.

Faculty and academic staff involvement in the curriculum has steadily grown, driven by a robust annual reward system designed with bottom-up input. Faculty contributions to departmental research and education objectives are weighted equally. So, too, are collective contributions of academic departments to education and research. This reward system ensures departmental and individual accountability for supporting the curriculum.

CityU has invested in dedicated student-project facilities to further promote the culture of discovery and innovation. Faculty have established laboratories with technical support, enabling students to create apps and use resources like 3-D scanners and printers, robots, drones, and forensic tools. This past year, two students won a top international award by using the facilities to prepare prototypes of shelter structures that could be constructed quickly and cheaply for natural-disaster victims.

The recognition of undergraduate intellectual property as a growth area prompted CityU to modify its intellectual-property guidelines. The university recognizes student-inventors’ ownership of their ideas, with appropriate benefits to mentors and CityU if institutional resources were involved. CityU opened a resource center where the campus community can obtain guidance on protecting and developing intellectual property.

Many faculty and staff members were initially skeptical that undergraduates could contribute to original scholarship. They have been persuaded and motivated by what students are accomplishing across campus.

Can other institutions create a similar curriculum? Many could start, as CityU did, with each department ensuring that its majors and courses would help 1) shape students’ attitudes and expectations that they could make original disciplinary discoveries; 2) nurture students’ abilities to do so through basic courses and coaching; and 3) provide platforms — from final-year projects to introductory interdisciplinary courses to cocurricular activities — that encourage and demonstrate students’ original contributions. It is noteworthy that CityU’s total teaching budget was essentially unchanged by the discovery-enriched curriculum.

We find that students hunger for the challenge of doing something no one else has done before. Fundamentally, the curriculum and reward system resolve longstanding tensions over the relative balance between research and education, particularly with respect to undergraduates: The shared objective of creating new knowledge merges research and education synergistically, motivates successful student-mentor collaborations, and puts students front and center in making decisions and taking responsibility for their education.

CityU is on track for full-scale implementation — all undergraduates completing a "discovery-enriched curriculum" project before graduation — by 2018. What I described is one model that significantly heightens expectations for faculty, staff, and students. It demonstrates what might be accomplished nationally by a collective will to raise the bar for the undergraduate experience.

Arthur B. Ellis is vice president for research and graduate studies at the University of California Office of the President and the former provost at the City University of Hong Kong.