Wide-Angle Learning

The bold new Rollins Plan helps students view ideas through an interdisciplinary lens

By Leigh Perkins Brown

Photo by John Logan.

For the first time in decades, Rollins College is piloting a renewal of its general education curriculum with a cutting-edge new program called The Rollins Plan. Although it is being implemented on a small scale as a pilot program, with 80 first-year students enrolled in the program’s first two themes, there is nothing small scale about its vision.

“This is a big idea; it’s pioneering,” said Debra Wellman, associate professor of education and one of the Rollins Plan coordinators. “This is out-of-the-box thinking, a way to teach subjects that brings about robust discussion and integrative learning across disciplines.”

The “big idea” is the centerpiece of The Rollins Plan. Students are delving into a series of interdisciplinary themed courses in either of the two pilots, Global Challenges: Florida and Beyond or Revolution. For example, in the Revolution program, the central topic is a springboard for students to learn about revolutionary thinkers in the arts, history, science, religion, math, literature, and politics. Over their four years at Rollins, they will come to understand how key figures and pivotal moments have affected the progress of humanity.

“No one at Rollins had ever thought of general education in this way before, to create a themed approach to the general education curriculum,” said Wellman, who is teaching a Revolution course on learning with Assistant Professor of Psychology Alice Davidson. “We’re really taking down the walls and crossing divisional barriers, so a philosopher and an astronomer can teach a course together about how the study of the stars can transform our sense of our place in the cosmos. What results is a deeper understanding of the solar system and our belief systems.”

Big Idea.

The Rollins Plan is designed to replace general education requirements through a series of seven interrelated courses in four areas: humanities, the expressive arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. “With the alphabet soup approach to the curriculum, students are filling their plate with a little bit of this and a little bit of that from the buffet. The Rollins Plan is more like going to a restaurant where you’re served a complete meal, all of the flavors complementing each other,” said Mark Anderson, professor of mathematics, who was instrumental in the development of The Rollins Plan and is teaching a Revolution course about the number zero.

The big concept ties all the courses together over the four years, helping students to synthesize what they’re learning. For instance, all Global Challenges courses are viewed through the filter of Florida. “So a statistics class could look at population growth and a political science class could look at elections and it is no longer theorizing, no longer abstract. It’s playing out in Central Florida, right here and right now, and they can apply what they learn in one class to the next,” said Professor of Environmental Studies Bruce Stephenson, who is co-coordinator of Global Challenges and is also teaching Global Competition and the American Dream with George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of Politics Rick Foglesong. “The idea is using Florida as a laboratory for global challenges.”

First-year student Nadia Ramirez is taking Kenneth Curry Professor of Literature Maurice O’Sullivan’s Rollins Plan course Visions of Paradise. “What I like is that we’re not staring at a board all day. With this approach, there is more hands-on experience and a wider range of topics that we can apply to other things we’re learning. Learning about how Florida was colonized applies to Colombia, which is where I’m from. We’re talking about the Everglades and all of its problems and we can see how similar things are happening all over the world, like Mexico City, which is sinking because it was built on a lake bed. It all ties together.”

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