published September 12, 2012

West Point Launches Major Curricular Initiative: Puts SENCER Ideals in Action

- David Burns

I think it is safe to say that the team from the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) captured the attention, admiration, and affection of the SENCER community members who first met them at SSI 2011 at Butler. West Point trains cadets who face the most challenging of "unscripted problems" and, after serious self study, had concluded that when considering its general education program, a "siloed" approach had to yield in favor of a strategy that was far more inter-disciplinary in nature. So, with the assistance of Barb Tewksbury, they decided to investigate the SENCER approach.

Now, a bit more than a year later and following another highly productive stint at SSI 2012 in Santa Clara, the West Point team is rolling out a new linked-course sequence focused on energy. They have developed what they are calling an "energy spine" on which to organize learning in chemistry and mathematics (and other disciplines, as well).

This spine metaphor immediately resonated with me as it made me recall that, in the early days of our work on HIV, I used to say that students had the "skeleton" of their version of the HIV story on which to "hang" or array what they would be learning in biology or other disciplines. Little did I know how this notion caught one of the central tenets of new research on cognitive science and new findings about novice versus expert learning. It just made sense to me. Endo-skeletons always have! So I was delighted when our colleagues from the U.S. Army put even more spine in SENCER!

It's also always gratifying and inspiring to get reports on how things are going in the projects our colleagues are carrying out on campus. Last Sunday, I received an update from one of the leaders of the USMA effort, Jerry Kobylski, an Academy Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. Just days after SSIU 2012, this report was thus especially welcome.

I asked Jerry for permission to share some of it with you. He graciously consented. Here is a summary of his report along with a stunning photo of West Point and the Hudson River by Dr. Frank Wattenberg. Here's some of what Jerry reported:

... Administrative support for our effort continues to be steady. Our Dean (Provost), BG Timothy Trainor, has always been a strong supporter of our efforts. In fact, he is the one who asked us to years ago to investigate ways that our academic program could become more interdisciplinary. The support from him, our administration, and our faculty continues to grow.

The Core Interdisciplinary Team recently presented our planned effort to approximately 100 faculty who would be teaching in the interdisciplinary program. We outlined the strategic picture and motivation of why we were engaging in this effort to include addressing the following questions why interdisciplinary, why energy, why now, and why at West Point. I think we definitely "set the hook" with our faculty, hopefully the hook sticks. Many told us afterwards how appreciative they were and how much they were looking forward to teaching in this endeavor.

Now comes a harder sell, to our students. This past week we attempted to "set the hook" with our cadets, approximately 2000, or half of the Corps of Cadets. We invited two guest speakers to speak in three separate presentations to each year group, and then to the faculty. One was a senior civilian leader (two star military equivalent) who has played a significant role in developing the Army's strategy with respect to energy for the future. Needless to say he understood and is a strong supporter of interdisciplinary study. The second speaker was recently redeployed from a tour in Afghanistan as a company commander for a forward support battalion.

In joint presentations, our two speakers highlighted the strategic importance and concerns of energy security. The tactical introduction included first-hand description of his experience of managing the logistical complexities of day-to-day operations at the forward operating bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan.

We hope these presentations captured cadet interest and attention so the points driven home regarding energy security in subsequent classroom work and discussion will have a lasting effect and will positively influence their future careers both at USMA and in the Army.

Last week in my introductory calculus course for the freshman, we gave the students a "taste" of the energy problem. We issued a short essay question on ways to reduce energy usage at West Point, using a problem-solving process as an outline for the essay.

Cadets will keep these essays and then bring them to their English class where the English teachers will have the students reflect on their writing and thoughtfulness in this essay, and then build on in another essay, this time a requirement in the English course. This essay will create a benchmark for us to compare student work at the end of the semester and at the end of the academic year. Topics to be compared include student composition skills, knowledge of significant energy principles, and an awareness of the importance of an interdisciplinary thought process.

We also issued our SALG survey last week, again to benchmark student learning growth.

"The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense."

Well, this surely is an impressive start to what is one of the largest applications of the SENCER ideals since the program began. Jerry and his colleagues are grateful for all the support they have received. They continue to solicit advice and counsel as this venture progresses. I have invited Jerry and Joe to keep us updated on progress and look forward to being able to share the results with you as they emerge.