Background and Context


Phillip J. Mason
Professor of Biology
Dean, College of Science & Technology
(304) 367-4156

Judy Byers
Abelina Suarez Professor of English
Director of West Virginia Folklife Center
(304) 367-4286

Debra Hemler
Associate Professor of Science Education
Coordinator of Science Education
(304) 367-4393

Where is the Learning Community taught?

Fairmont State University (FSU) is a public, comprehensive, multi-site, selective university located in Fairmont, West Virginia, approximately 100 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, PA. We are undergoing an academic reorganization, and presently have two colleges and four schools: the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Science & Technology, the Schools of Business, Fine Arts, Nursing and Allied Health Administration, and Education, Health and Human Performance. We have over 70 undergraduate majors and three Master's programs and enroll approximately 4500 students. FSU has a long tradition of excellence in teacher education, and from that base has built quality programs in the sciences, social sciences (especially criminal justice), mathematics, business administration and nursing. (

Fairmont State's broad goal is to educate students as productive persons with the fundamental skills in problem solving, effective communication and cooperative and independent work necessary to solve real life issues and to remain contributing members of society.

Desired Profile of a Fairmont State University graduate:

  • Students should acquire an informed appreciation of the arts, the humanities and the social and natural sciences; they should become aware of the relationships of the academic disciplines among themselves and with broader social and ethical issues.
  • Students should develop competence in mathematics, oral and written communication, reading and listening.
  • Students should acquire problem-solving skills to aid them in making decisions about personal values and career strategies. They should demonstrate proficiency in their major fields of study so as to be competitive in the job market or gain admission to respected graduate or professional schools.
  • Students should have techniques for coping with the vast amounts of information available in a rapidly changing society; they should accept the necessity and pleasure of lifelong learning.
  • Students should develop sensitivity in matters of social justice, accepting and appreciating ethnic or personal differences among individuals in our society. Students should maintain an ethical view that respects the life, property, opinions, and feelings of others.
  • Students should have the knowledge and attitudes that lead to physical health and well-being.

Institutional/External Support

Fairmont State University continues to support this Learning Community through faculty workload distribution whereby the full-time faculty teaching a portion of each section receive full-load credit. All of the science faculty members have fully supported this initiative, enabling us to acquire needed supplies and materials from a limited budget.

We have been fortunate to gain the support of the National Science Foundation for this project. We were awarded a three-year DUE CCLI Adaptation and Implementation grant for $193,000. These monies pay for faculty stipends during the summers, development workshops, a project evaluator, travel to present our work, student preceptors, and publications.

What is the Learning Community's role in the undergraduate curriculum?

As part of its new Liberal Studies Curriculum (General Education), Fairmont State University requires each student to complete 8 credits in the sciences (two 4-credit courses, laboratory or activities-based). Additionally, as part of the requirements of the Artistic/Creative Expression/Interdisciplinary Option, a student may select from a number of interdisciplinary courses. The Learning Community, Coal in the Heart of Appalachian Life is composed of the two courses, Science in the Heart of Appalachia and Introduction to Folklore, and fulfills four credits of the science requirement and four credits of the interdisciplinary option.

How does the Learning Community advance institution-wide initiatives?

The Learning Community is intentionally developed to help students acquire a number of characteristics valued in our graduates, including:

  • enhanced communication skills,
  • an appreciation of the interconnectedness among the sciences,
  • improved problem-solving skills,
  • increased civic awareness and responsibility,
  • an appreciation of the relationship between the humanities and the sciences.

Additionally, this Learning Community will begin to impact the very important institutional initiative of improving student retention. The confidence and independence that a community of learners can foster should help students develop stronger attachments to the institution.

The Learning Community will also serve as a model for the development of future learning communities. The university is in the planning stages of the creation of learning communities for at-risk students who require one or more academic skills courses. Also, the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Science & Technology are discussing ways to link new Liberal Studies science courses with fundamental skills courses in English composition as a direct result of this project.