Provost's Perspective: Towards a more practical, more authentic and more connected curriculum
4 December 2015
Many of you have told me that one of your reasons for choosing UCL was because it is a university where world-class research is created, not just imparted.
I totally agree and it's one of the things that attracted me to UCL. But wouldn't it be even better if, as students, you could be part of helping to create this research, alongside your lecturers?
Those of you who are postgraduates, and particularly PhD students, will be doing this anyway, but the opportunity may not be there if you are an undergraduate.
We're working to change that.
Universities across the world are increasingly looking at how they can break down barriers between teaching and carrying out world-class research. Over the last two years, we've developed a model unique to UCL: the Connected Curriculum.
Making you better prepared for the workplace and the wider world
We think it will make you better prepared for the workplace and the wider world and consider it so important that in five years' time, we want all our degrees to include some element of it.
At its core is the idea that intellectually curious students like you learn best when you experience first-hand the challenges and achievements of conducting research, but also that you get more from your studies when you make connections between your degree programme, subjects outside it and the world beyond UCL.
In practice, it's about making your learning more practical and authentic, with tasks that closely resemble real-world problems.
We believe the Connected Curriculum will help fine-tune your critical thinking skills so that you become a confident problem-solver, an experienced communicator of complex information and a highly effective team worker - skills that are crucial in today's workplace and in the wider world.
Some departments have already adopted elements of the Connected Curriculum to excellent effect
Undergraduate law students, for example, work with the Citizens Advice Bureau to find answers to their clients' legal problems, with help from their lecturers. This allows the students to gain a practical perspective on their studies that comes from outside UCL and to connect with lawyers.
For several years, undergraduates in physics and astronomy have had the opportunity to volunteer on research projects. On one project, All Optical Material Characterisation, materials are blasted with a laser and then analysed to determine their composition. First-year undergraduates develop the chamber where the materials will be blasted and source what is needed. Postdocs and PhD students then train the undergraduates in the techniques they use, while teaching fellows in the labs ensure the first years receive the support they need.
A few years ago, five successive cohorts of undergraduate students in the Department of Science and Technology Studies built on each others' work until they produced something that could be published - an academic monograph on the history of chlorine from its first isolation in the 1770s to the late 20th century. The monograph contained selected articles by undergraduates on the course. The lecturers said the students showed a "spontaneous willingness to go beyond what was required by the assignment itself - and, more importantly, they showed a perceptive capacity to reflect on the process of research". Today, students on the history and philosophy of Science BSc in the department contribute to, among many other things, debates on science funding - further evidence of the Connected Curriculum in practice.
I could go on with many more impressive examples from a wide range of departments.
All degree programmes to reflect the Connected Curriculum by 2021
The Connected Curriculum is not yet embedded at UCL, but our strategic plan for the next 20 years - UCL 2034 - ensures that it will be. Our aim, as stated in UCL 2034, is for students to "participate in the research process and the creation of knowledge, supported by academic and research staff" and for students to "understand the 'edge of knowledge' and learn how to deal with uncertainty".
We propose that by 2021, we will have reviewed all our degree programmes to ensure they reflect the Connected Curriculum. As you can see from the examples above, what it will look like will vary tremendously between degree programmes.
As Dr Dilly Fung, Director of UCL Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching, whose team is championing the Connected Curriculum, has said, one of the purposes of the initiative is to "break down some of the old boundaries between research and education, between 'academic' and 'professional', between staff and students" and also "to bring opportunities for making more productive and creative connections between the people, activities and values which make up UCL's vibrant community".
As students, you are the professionals of the future and your ability to problem-solve and make judgements is crucial. Learning how to conduct research is not just for those of you who intend to become academics, it will be a skill that is central to your working life.
The success of the Connected Curriculum relies on the whole UCL community coming up with ideas of how to make it work for each course.
We've already held a hackathon and two events in the South Cloisters to ask you what you think of the Connected Curriculum. Why not join one of the themed Connected Curriculum working groups, look out for grants from our UCL ChangeMakers programme to help you work out how the Connected Curriculum could be part of your course or start a discussion about it in your department?
I look forward to hearing about the part you play in creating world-class research at UCL.
Professor Michael Arthur, UCL President & Provost