First-Year Program at Duke University Bridges the Disciplines
For the past fifteen years, Duke University’s Focus Program has given entering students the chance to pursue intensive study in thematically linked courses. The program, which is housed in Trinity College and the Pratt School of Engineering, brings undergraduates together with faculty from different disciplines to examine a common topic or problem in depth for one semester.
The Focus Program combines elements of recent educational innovations like learning communities and first-year experience programs. Seminars developed for the program draw on and connect the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences, fostering appreciation for different modes of inquiry and introducing first-year students to college-level study. Beyond the classroom, shared housing creates a sense of community and links academic experiences to other aspects of student life.
According to Amy Feistel, the senior coordinator of the program, Focus reflects a longstanding commitment to research that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. “Duke is unique in that the university as a whole has a very interdisciplinary strategy for research”—a strategy that includes undergraduates as well as graduate students and faculty, she says.
Interdisciplinarity and the First-Year Experience
The Focus Program is modeled on a single cluster of courses on twentieth-century America that was initiated in the 1970s. The cluster was unique as an academic program open to incoming students who lived together and interacted intensively with faculty. This model was expanded in the early 1990s and has developed steadily to the present, with new curricula and an expanding base of faculty. Today, with twelve to thirteen clusters admitting thirty to thirty-two students each, the program reaches about a quarter of the entering class and involves between sixty and eighty-five faculty every year.
The development of course clusters for the Focus Program is directed by a faculty member, currently Professor Angela M. O’Rand. Individual clusters are typically formed by individual faculty members who are interested in teaching about a specific topic; those faculty, in turn, recruit others to teach with them. Despite the demands the program places on all of those involved, it has enjoyed strong support from faculty and administrators alike. “Faculty really enjoy working with engaged students, and they find that it refreshes them,” Amy Feistel says.
Focus clusters cover a wide range of topics and often engage students in examining large social issues or global problems. Among last fall’s offerings were clusters exploring twentieth-century Europe, the arts in contemporary society, evolution and humankind, the creation of social ideals, and the impact of the “genome revolution.” At least three seminars, each emerging from a different disciplinary perspective, are offered within every cluster. Students in the Focus Program choose two of these seminars and also enroll in an interdisciplinary discussion session, a university-required writing course that is tied to the cluster’s theme, and one elective course outside of the cluster.
The Focus Program’s design provides a supportive but challenging introduction to college. Together, the courses within the clusters expose students to diverse methodologies and demonstrate how the disciplines can provide varying insights into the same set of problems. Since Focus seminars are typically limited to about fifteen students each semester, and the writing course is limited to just ten, students have the opportunity to interact closely with their professors and with one another. At the same time, the discussion course, which takes place in the context of a shared weekly dinner, creates more informal opportunities for faculty-student interaction.
The coursework is complemented by the program’s residential and student life components. Members of individual clusters live in the same residence halls and often participate in cocurricular activities together. In recent years, innovations like “librarian in the house”—a program that brings a librarian into the dorms to hold weekly office hours—have enriched the residential experience. Living together also allows students to form study groups and collaborate on homework. At the same time, the program mandates that students in the program have non-Focus roommates—an important requirement that helps prevent Focus students from becoming isolated from the broader campus community.
| The Focus cluster on evolution and humankind visits the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina.
A growing body of research suggests that first-year programs like Focus can improve academic performance, persistence, and graduation rates. At Duke, tracking of former Focus students shows that students who have participated in the program outperform their peers in many ways and are more likely to write honors theses. Amy Feistel attributes the academic achievement of these students not just to the program’s emphasis on interdisciplinary inquiry and research, but also to “the comfort level in being able to interact with faculty” that students develop through their early experiences in a tight-knit academic community.
Such successes, however, also highlight the Focus Program’s limitations. The program cannot reach every first-year student, and indeed, it must turn away interested applicants every year. There is no easy solution to this problem—because the program involves many faculty members and makes many demands upon their time, it inevitably also takes them away from some of their departmental teaching duties. Balancing departmental needs with the program’s goals is a major challenge, although departmental support has been substantial.
Given such constraints, Duke has recently turned to the spring semester as it seeks to build upon the program’s success. This spring, the Focus Program is offering a single cluster of courses on global health, and in the coming years, the number of offerings is expected to grow. Unlike the fall clusters, clusters offered in spring are open to sophomores as well as freshmen and do not involve a residential component. Spring clusters thus make the program’s benefits available to a wider range of students, including those who may not have applied to Focus when they first enrolled at Duke.
But what continues to make the Focus Program unique, according to Feistel, is its pairing of intensive interdisciplinary inquiry and residential life in the first year. The program has devoted years to building strong relationships with Duke’s Office of Residence Life and Housing Services and the many academic departments on campus. “Making an equal match—strong academic component, strong residence life component—takes some time to develop but is really key to long-term success,” Feistel says. Such collaboration, as the Focus Program demonstrates, can produce a truly integrated educational experience: one that not only draws connections between the disciplines, but also links academics and student life.
Additional information about Duke University’s Focus Program is available online. For more on integrative and interdisciplinary learning, first-year programs, and learning communities, see AAC&U’s curriculum resources. Peer Review, AAC&U’s quarterly journal on emerging trends in undergraduate education, will focus on first-year programs in the Summer 2006 issue.