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Academic Experience unit
seeks to support students
November 2, 1998

"An academic experience as well as a degree" rolls across the computer screen in John Bennett's office.

It's an appropriate screen saver for Bennett, who in August became director of Academic Experience, a new unit in the Office of Undergraduate Education. An associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the First Year Experience, Bennett was appointed to his new position by Susan Steele, vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction.

Academic Experience includes the First Year Experience, Academic Center for Exploratory Students (ACES), Center for Academic Programs (CAP), Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and the High School Coop Program. The unit places together existing centers and adds new ones. The goal is to enhance the undergraduate experience at the University and to foster student success. "We are trying to build a cohesive program so that no student will fall into the cracks making their way through this institution," Steele says.

The unit will enable more successful integration of students into the academic community, she says. "The organization of a university into schools and colleges isn't always meaningful to undergraduate students. They don't stay in one college, they move around a lot. They change their minds; they change their majors; they come in undecided, they can't get into the major they want," Steele says. "What we're trying to do with this unit is to make sure that as they move from one college to another, from one major to another, they get the support they need."

One of Bennett's goals is to work with faculty University-wide to explore ways to allow more flexibility in the curriculum. Often, he says, students are so busy counting up the number of degree requirements, they don't have a chance to find out what they really want to study.

"We haven't given students a chance to explore what they're interested in or curious about and they end up not knowing why they want to be a mechanical engineer or a pharmacist or a history teacher," Bennett says. "The end result is, because they haven't thought about it enough, they aren't really into it, and don't get much out of it." And in many cases, when a new required course is offered, an elective is eliminated, yet it is electives that provide opportunities for students to address their curiosity, he says.

Since August, much of Bennett's time has been spent working with the programs that are part of the Academic Experience group. The individualized major program, part of the Center for Interdisciplin ary Studies, is being refined to give students across campus more flexible opportunities. The new Academic Center for Exploratory Students has seen a steady flow of students since its creation.

Bennett is creating an advisory group to help him with University-wide efforts to examine curriculum, student advising and teaching, and to make recommendations for improvements.

He says he will begin working with faculty, administrators and staff to evaluate these areas. He plans to work with them to address any problems.

For instance, says Bennett, "If we believe that every student who graduates from UConn should be able to communicate his or her ideas effectively, through writing or speaking, we need to make sure they are gaining these skills throughout the curriculum."

Sherry Fisher