Freshman project encourages collaboration

Students collaborate on the Comets to the Core project, in which they work toward a solution to the global water crisis. Groups of eight people from different majors to combine their different perspectives. Photo by Mady Tran | Mercury Staff.

This fall semester, UTD’s core curriculum committee launched Comets to the Core, a new project that will engage freshman to solve global issues during their college career. In its first year, with logistics yet to be fully developed, the project has received mixed reactions from students.

Required for students to graduate, Comets to the Core places incoming freshmen into groups of eight students with different majors. The students work together during their fall semester to formulate a solution for a particular issue of the core committee’s choice, with each student providing unique insight related to their major.

This year’s assigned global problem is the water crisis, compelling students to focus on a related problem of their choice, such as water contamination or drought.

On Aug. 2, the university sent out an email to all freshmen regarding the project instructions, which elicited various reactions from different students. Upon reading the assignment, finance freshman Eva Weimer said she had a positive outlook on the project.

“When I first saw it, I thought it would be a pretty easy task to do and that it would definitely provide insight for everyone in our freshman class,” Weimer said. “I’m a Girl Scout, so I’ve done work related to water contamination, but this adds another side to it, since I’m a finance major and I get to look on the budgeting side of things.”

However, a concern among freshmen, such as Weimer, is that the deadlines arrive too soon during the semester, giving them little time to complete the project.

“It’s the first semester of college — you’re wanting to go to all these club meetings, trying to create your study habits,” Weimer said. “I can definitely see where UTD is trying to go with this project. But it seems like something that should have a longer deadline to complete. I personally don’t like that I have to do this as I’m trying to get situated in college.”

Marilyn Kaplan, chair of the core curriculum committee and associate dean for undergraduate programs at the Naveen Jindal School of Management, chose the topic for this year’s project. She was interested in how students would use their creativity to tackle a significant issues.

“It’s a problem everywhere and it’s something our students will have to deal with,” Kaplan said. “Look what’s been happening recently with the hurricanes — you’ve got people in the state of Texas that don’t have clean water because of problems with water contaminants and equipment.”

Over the last few years, she led the development of the project as the vision of the core committee evolved.

“When we changed the core curriculum in 2014, we realized that what we’d been doing in the past was just measuring (the skills of) each class — and that didn’t give us a comparison basis,” Kaplan said. “We had fabulous freshmen coming into UTD, who have a lot of skills, and it was hard to measure that qualitatively and get a bigger picture out of it.”

In 2014, the committee established the CLA assessment, designed to measure students’ critical thinking skills. Freshmen also engaged in an end-of-semester freshman seminar class project, similar to the Comets to the Core project, but involving localized, university-based issues and occurring on a smaller scale.

“While the CLA assessment is great, we still had this inconsistent measure from the freshman seminar class,” Kaplan said. “We wanted to accomplish a couple of different things — for one, we wanted to get more consistency. And at the same time, we realized that what we lacked was that feeling of ‘You’re something bigger than you.’”

Dohyeong Kim, director of the Center for Geospatial Research in Global Health Policy, said he supports the idea of having various students tackle global issues together through the project.

“Something I always emphasize in my class on environmental health is that issues like the water crisis or global diseases are always multidisciplinary,” Kim said. “Any single discipline cannot handle it appropriately, which indicates how complex the problem is. Students will learn to come up with tangible plans and develop skills, although it may take time to reap actual benefits from it.”

At the end of the fall semester, students in the freshman seminar classes will vote on the top five group solutions. The chosen groups will present their solutions during Research Week in the spring.

During their junior year, all students will participate in the project again with the guidance of a mentor, and will compete for scholarship or funding to implement their solutions. The core committee has not yet determined the logistics of this part of the project.

As an upperclassman who was not required to complete the project, biology junior Zehra Rizvi said she appreciates the benefits that the project can potentially provide to UTD students.

“It sounds like a really great opportunity,” Rizvi said. “As a freshman, I didn’t know how to get into research, so having something like this where you’re involved in the process, that’s a really cool opportunity. You get to know what it feels like to present research to actually implement a solution.”

However, she points to the negative effects the project may have for students later in their college career.

“Personally, I wouldn’t be a fan of doing (the project) during junior year,” Rizvi said. “I’m premed, and junior year is very stressful in terms of that. People are finishing up MCAT or studying for it, preparing for applications and interviews, getting in research or doing internships. Junior year is already very important and hectic, and unless they make the project a little more manageable, it may be a little implausible.”

Kaplan acknowledges issues students may encounter through the project, but has high expectations of what they can accomplish.

I think that students need to understand that when they’re coming in as freshmen, our expectations are high, considering the quality of freshmen recruited to UTD,” Kaplan said. “As far as getting the project done, it is a way for them to make friends before classes even start, a way for them to work with people from other majors, which should open up positive avenues for them.”

With the addition of the project to the curriculum, Kaplan said she believes it will make UTD stand out amongst the University of Texas System.

“We’re definitely the rebel, no question,” Kaplan said. “We want to test a hypothesis — to use the scientific method to see if any changes were made in the students. Usually, you don’t look at your journey from semester to semester, so I think this is going to put the core curriculum in a new perspective for students so that they can see how valuable it is. At the end of it, these are all skills that will prepare them for the real world.”

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