Georgia State University (GSU) has seven campuses throughout the metro Atlanta region, and recently merged with the two-year Georgia Perimeter College. It is one of the largest and most diverse universities in the country, serving more than 53,000 students, of which over 40 percent are African-American.
GSU’s initiatives around retention and time to graduation have led to a remarkable charge to become the #1 Public University for Teaching and #2 University in Innovation (U.S. News and World Report, 2019). GSU is proud of these achievements in student success measures, particularly for its large body of historically underserved students, but is under no illusion that the metrics fully capture the learning that occurs in the classroom.
In 2017, to focus more attention on curriculum, pedagogy, and faculty development across all campuses, a committee of academic deans, department chairs, faculty, and experts in teaching and learning was charged by the provost to develop innovative curriculum to help integrate the two- and four-year campuses of the newly merged institution while responding to the rapidly changing landscape for higher education and to build on GSU’s efforts to strengthen retention and graduation. The result of the work of this committee is the Experiential, Project-based, Interdisciplinary Curriculum (EPIC) project.
The EPIC Project
The EPIC project is designed to bring together faculty across its two-year and four campuses in an institution-wide effort to make undergraduate education for GSU students more cohesive and coherent.
EPIC’s primary goals are to: 1) Improve the core general education experience for GSU students with interdisciplinary and experiential learning modeled on a liberal arts education and 2) Create long-term project-based opportunities for students pursuing liberal arts degrees who rarely have a chance to do this work in college, particularly at large-enrollment institutions. By embedding applied learning and research into the curriculum, the EPIC project intends to better prepare undergraduate students to forge a path to a successful career after graduation. Importantly, a more cohesive program also facilitates a smoother transition for GSU’s two-year students as they move to the four-year campus.
The EPIC program combines the strengths of a traditional liberal arts education, such as interdisciplinary learning, critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, with the types of innovative experiential approaches to learning that AAC&U refers to as “high impact practices” such as first-year experiences, undergraduate research, ePortfolios, learning communities, collaborative assignments and projects, and community-based learning.
Planning and Pilot Phase
At the outset of the project in 2019, GSU first undertook a course objectives alignment process across its Atlanta (four-year) and Perimeter (two-year) campuses to identify common skills and content across core disciplines and to ensure GSU students on all campuses are prepared to meet the same learning objectives in general education as they move into their major coursework. GSU also piloted EPIC on the Atlanta campus, building on its highly successful Freshman Learning Communities (FLCs) and launching a new component called Project Labs, both of which are described below. The EPIC pilot included 114 incoming freshmen, 51 organizational roles (faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate assistants), 5 colleges and 15 departments (including 9 departments in the Liberal Arts.)
Freshman Learning Communities
Almost all incoming freshman at GSU join a Freshman Learning Community (FLC). These FLC cohorts of 25 students take all of their general education courses together during the first semester. As a result, students are guaranteed to take courses that count towards degree requirements in the first semester while also building a sense of belonging and community with peers. GSU leveraged its FLC model, which has already been shown to raise retention and improve time to degree, as part of its EPIC project. The pilot EPIC FLCs were built around pairings of courses taken by large numbers of students as part of their core and specifically chosen based on intersecting content, skills, and objectives (for example, American Government and American History, or Introduction to Biology and Introduction of Psychology). The FLC model already enabled GSU to assign first-semester general education course schedules for entering students; the EPIC project aimed to make the coursework completed by students more intellectually cohesive, coherent, and cross-cutting. The intentional course pairings deepen students’ learning and help them better understand the interconnectivity of disciplines instead of feeling as if they are taking a random assortment of classes.
Students in the 2019 pilot also participated in Project Labs, which enabled them to work on faculty-led, hands-on, interdisciplinary, public-facing projects that take on pressing issues and bring an experiential dimension to general education coursework. Through Project Labs, students have opportunities to: 1) develop and demonstrate 21st century skills like digital literacies, complex problem solving, and teamwork; 2) Apply knowledge from classes to real-world projects with impact; 3) Build networks with faculty, community groups, non-profits, and businesses; and 4) Build a portfolio to show what they know. Over time, faculty can build a skilled project team of undergraduate and graduate students to work in their labs. GSU’s Project Labs work is inspired by Georgia Tech’s Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program. Project labs encompassed diverse topics from homelessless to the development of civics educational resources for K-12 public schools.
Moving Forward in the Scale-Up Phase
Since the 2019 pilot, practices continue to be refined and expanded in the implementation and scale-up phase through the following tactics. Revisions and iterative improvement are very much part of the process of this innovative and bold project.
Paired Courses and Spiral Alignment
As of 2021, GSU has four sets of Paired Courses (Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Sociology; Fundamentals of Chemistry and College Algebra; American History and American Government; and Introduction to Biology and Psychology). However, the project leaders realized over time that course pairings focus on a small group of faculty to create specific curricular pairings, and placing the emphasis on pairings between two courses presents challenges for two-year Perimeter students as they often have more limitations to their schedules. While the course pairings continue to be used in EPIC FLCs, project leaders have also convened a much larger group of faculty to create an online repository of materials that shows connections between core courses and disciplines to promote what they called “spiral alignment” in general education coursework. The materials will be searchable by discipline, type of material, and content focus to promote interdisciplinarity in a more flexible manner.
Highly Adaptable Courses
During the planning process, GSU also identified English Composition I and Elementary Statistics as “Highly Adaptable Courses,” meaning courses that are largely skills-based and not content specific, allowing for connections across the curriculum. GSU is creating a growing bank of teaching resources for Highly Adaptable Courses that are developed with faculty from a host of disciplines. For instance, as of 2021, teaching resources have been developed that draw on the disciplines of Political Science, History, and Biology. Moving forward, the High-Adaptable Courses faculty working group also plans to experiment with providing mini-grants for faculty who are grouped together in FLCs and are prepared to meet on a regular basis before and during the semester. While the costs for such an initiative will be low, and in some cases might not go much further than a nice conversation, GSU believes that over time this approach will encourage connections among faculty from across the curriculum.
Project Lab Improvements
As of 2021, GSU has 11 project labs (9 on the Atlanta campus, 2 on Perimeter campuses). GSU has learned a lot about how to make course credits work for students and faculty. For example, they are working on a proposal for a certificate in Project-Based Learning to incentivize undergraduates to seek out experiential learning opportunities and are experimenting with variable hour Project Lab courses. Based on lessons learned, they are also working with faculty to refine templates for syllabi for the Labs. Further, they are starting to work with the office of academic advising to determine how to best enroll students into Project Labs and allow them to continue over multiple semesters without disrupting their steady progression to graduation.
Recent Project Labs have spanned a range of topics. For example, one Project Lab focused on political science studied approval ratings of world leaders; the team published their findings in a post in the Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog in January 2021. Another Project Lab recently collaborated with the CDC Museum to mount a digital exhibit on Ebola; a new Project Lab is slated for fall 2021 involving faculty from Biology and Museum Studies, and working with the CDC Museum, to digitize an exhibit on influenza.
Faculty Relationship-Building and Knowledge-Gathering Across Campuses
GSU has emphasized relationship-building and knowledge-gathering over the course of the project. GSU has recognized that faculty are not often given the occasion to talk with one another about their teaching outside of and even within their departments. These conversations are even more infrequent between faculty at the two-year and four-year campuses. The project leaders have found that faculty are eager to have these opportunities, and also see connections across disciplines, but do not often make these connections explicit for their students. They have found that when discussions are placed within the context of the EPIC program, faculty are interested in identifying ways of aligning core courses and develop meaningful project work for students.
Over the three years of the Teagle-funded EPIC project, course alignment workshops will bring together more than 60 faculty representing at least 15 large enrollment core courses (e.g., Introduction to African American Studies, World Literature, Principles of Macroeconomics, and Survey of World History since 1500) with the following underlying goals: 1) Bring a broad group of faculty together to discuss the core experience and how their particular core disciplinary courses could connect to what students are learning in other classes; 2) build faculty relationships across disciplines and campuses; 3) introduce faculty to the EPIC program and disseminate project information to their departments; 4) generate ideas for Project Labs, Paired Courses, and Spiral Alignment; and 5) identify Highly Adaptable Courses. Each of the yearly EPIC workshop cohorts include 20 faculty, representing 10 large enrollment core courses. The broad aim of the EPIC workshops is to foster a culture of innovation and collaboration across campuses. EPIC is helping to weaken silos and build cohesion within and across academic departments.
While EPIC is working with faculty at all levels, the project leaders have targeted particular faculty members who have some control of how their disciplines’ core courses are taught. Faculty members are receiving stipends for their work.
The EPIC program has support at the highest administrative levels. Not only was the work initiated by a Provost-led committee, but the Provost’s office, Student Success office, the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Online Education, the Quality Enhancement Plan, and several deans have all provided funds for EPIC faculty development, graduate student support, and administrative assistance. GSU believes that this combination of support from upper administration and direction from faculty is vital to achieving and sustaining GSU’s ambitious goals.
Over the three-year implementation project from AY2020-2021 to AY2022-2023, the EPIC project is on track to serve approximately 3,500 students across its four-year campus and two-year campuses. By AY2025-2026, the goal is for EPIC to serve approximately 10,000 students across all campuses.
While the project is very much in progress, and more assessment data is needed to investigate how students change over time and how students and faculty feel about the program, EPIC is already showing some promising results. After three semesters at GSU, the 2019 EPIC cohort showed a very significant increase in cumulative GPA compared to a matched control group. Beyond comparing GPA and retention, EPIC will be using surveys, discussion boards, and psycholinguistic tests to measure interdisciplinary understanding, location and project-based learning, and the effect of other HIPs. Overall, the program is helping to facilitate a smoother transition for GSU’s two-year students as they move to the four-year campus, and is helping to ensure that more students receive a liberal arts education that equips them with the knowledge and skills they need to obtain and thrive in a rewarding career. The project is also helping to strengthen lines of communication among faculty at different campuses and fostering a greater sense of inclusion and shared decision-making, particularly among faculty at the two-year campuses.
For highlights from EPIC, visit: https://epic.gsu.edu/highlights-feeds/.
Released June 30, 2021