About First Year Studies

Introduction

The First Year Studies Program is a direct outgrowth of a 1983 school retreat, which focused on the need to make HASS programs relevant and exciting for engineering and science students at Rensselaer. As described in the Summer Workshop Report dated September 3, 1987, the intent was to create large gateway experiences for incoming students which would give them an overview and an introduction to the Humanities and Social Sciences as modes of inquiry, and which would prepare them to design their HASS core in a rational and productive manner. Formally launched in AY 1986-1987 with two courses, "Progress and its Problems" and "Nature and Society," the program has since expanded to encompass fourteen courses representing a total of 28 sections in HASS.

Courses attributes

Although the original vision of having team-taught courses by permanent faculty is no longer a formal requirement for the program, the program focuses on interdisciplinary, or "transdisciplinary" approaches that enable students to examine ideas and themes from multiple disciplinary perspectives so as to foster both critical thinking and an appreciation for a diversity of perspectives. Our courses are designed to reduce the reliance on a "talking heads" approach, offering instead a rich mixture of learning experiences based on hands-on projects, presentations of audio-visual materials, field trips, real-world simulations and other innovative pedagogies that stress active over passive learning modes. Gender-neutral language and communication is generally made a formal requirement. In general, FYS courses are based on reduced reliance on testing as an evaluation procedure. Section sizes in FYS courses are limited to 25 students consisting entirely of first year students. (Some of the courses have weekly plenary meetings, followed by smaller section meetings.)

Vision and Goals

Among the original and continuing vision and goals of the First Year Studies program are those of giving all incoming students a shared experience in exploring the richness of the HASS domain before they commit themselves to any particular track through their HASS Core; providing students exposure to top notch teaching within a supportive environment; promoting a unique, active mode of learning that does not rely on the traditional lecture format common to most HASS disciplines; and encouraging students to develop cooperative teamwork habits that value communication and negotiation. Since its inception, the pedagogic objectives of the program have been extended through joint discussions between the Director of the program and members of the FYS Faculty Advisory Committee. We are also fortunate to have a separate director of pedagogy for the program.  The instructional philosophy of the program is subject to constant renewal, based on the perpetually changing demands upon our educational system, and the needs and interests of our students . A current statement of the program's pedagogic philosophy can be viewed under the Philosophy section of this website.

History

Since its inception, the program's offerings have expanded from two large courses in 1986-87 to 14 as planned for Fall of 2003.  An average of approximately 600 incoming students per year have taken FYS courses, bringing the total students who have taken these courses over the years to well over 10,000 students. The nature of the courses has also changed over the years from being entirely pre-disciplinary and team-taught, to allow a mix which ranges from team-taught pre-disciplinary courses to individually taught introductory courses in some areas (some of those are interdisciplinary). On occasion, the maximum number of students per discussion section has had to be raised from 25 to 30 in order to accommodate a larger number of incoming students.  However, we have generally upheld the ceiling to 25 students.

In response to an emerging consensus about the importance of teamwork and communication skills for future success in professional areas, summer pedagogy seminars for faculty and teaching assistants have addressed those issues, and our courses emphasize projects and activities that are designed to develop and enhance requisite skills.

Faculty

Perhaps the best indication of the strength of the current program is the breadth and commitments of the faculty teaching in the FYS program. Biographic details of individual faculty members teaching in the program can be found by following the hyperlinks associated with specific instructors named under each of the course offerings. All faculty members who participate in this program are expected to take part in the FYS Summer Seminar.

Resources

As part of a fundraising effort for HASS, the school received an $800k endowment to partially support three dedicated faculty positions. Program implementation has varied due, initially, to a shift to an incentive based budgeting system, which led faculty to be budgeted out of individual department with income from the credit hours accruing to those departments. RPI's recent shift away from incentive budgeting has led to a reexamination of this practice.  While faculty continue to be paid out of departments, adjuncts who teach in the program to expand the flexibility of program offerings are paid out of the endowment income. The rest of the endowment income funds the summer pedagogy seminar as well as other ancillary costs such as the FYS lecture series, copyright fees, teaching materials, and field trips.

Present Circumstances and Future Directions

Clearly much has changed on campus since the inception of the FYS program. The 4 x 4 course format has diminished the number of core courses that all students are expected to take in HASS from 8 to 6. There has been an additional diminution of 2 credits for Engineering students as part of an added emphasis on Professional Development (i.e. Leadership). The initial assumption that all or nearly all incoming students would take a FYS course has not materialized. However, despite the voluntary nature of the program, presently some 700 students enroll in FYS courses each year, indicating the depth of student interest in the program.

Perhaps most importantly, the campus climate has changed dramatically. HASS now has significant majors - both primary and dual majors, and there is very strong student demand for HASS minors. All of that had prompted us to take a fresh look at the vision, the goals, and the programmatic strategies of the FYS program. Specifically, we need to redefine the role of the first year experience we provide students, and its relationship to our ongoing school programs and administrative structure. The current FYS Faculty Advisory Committee, along with the Director, are busy laying future plans for the program that will best serve the school and its students.


(revised 8/12/03)