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Utah higher education LEAPs ahead

April 14th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Cassidee Cline

SALT LAKE CITY—Many Utah educators and employers are wondering if students and future employees will have the education needed for them—and the state—to keep up in the current static economy.  The Association of American Colleges and Universities is hosting a conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday to discuss these issues and what can be done to face them.

Teddi Safman is Utah’s assistant commissioner for higher education. She said AAC&U has launched an initiative to help colleges turn out more well-rounded students. Liberal Education and America’s Promise—LEAP—is designed to achieve this goal.

“The message of the program is simple and straightforward,” USU history professor Daniel McInerney said. “LEAP is a wonderful opportunity for our college. It helps us frame and define that new initiative.”

Led by history department head Norm Jones, Utah’s specialist in general education, the LEAP initiative puts USU at the forefront of college-level educational reform nationwide.

With the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at USU splitting into two, McInerney said, LEAP will help the humanities and social sciences college (which still doesn’t have a formal name) create a curriculum to fit the needs of students and businesses.

“We need to make certain faculty have carefully reflected on the structure of their curriculum,” McInerney said. A lot of students may not understand the reasons behind what coursework is given to them. “We on campus haven’t been as clear and transparent as possible,” he said.

It’s not just about students understanding why their professors are making them write a 10-page paper, but how to apply different skills learned in the classroom into everyday life.

Debra Humphreys, AAC&U’s vice president of communications and public affairs in Washington, told Utah Public Radio Friday that businesses are discussing what students are missing in the workforce.  She said businesses are not only taking in students with mechanical and technical skills, but skills in writing, communication, group work and critical thinking.

McInerney said it’s the idea that students need to adapt to a constantly changing environment and if students have a “narrow” education with courses only specialized in their major, it will be harder for them to get a job.

“We are hoping to strengthen weaknesses and turn out students for businesses,” Safman said. When the program calls for a liberal education, she cautioned, it doesn’t mean a political agenda. Liberal education means liberation from ignorance.  It’s helping students understand the world they will inherit and how to effectively make it work.

“We need to understand what students presently face and anticipate what students are going to face,” McInerney said.

Humphreys told Utah Public Radio that hundreds of people will be attending the conference Wednesday to discuss what the education system needs.  She said it will include people from business leaders and professors, to superintendents and public policy leaders.

Discussion between these groups is rare, Humphreys said, and she hope this will help spur ideas and that these people will continue discussing ideas long after the conference is over.


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