New Honors College at Polytechnic University Offers
21st Century Undergrad Technology Education
How best to educate future technology professionals and leaders? This was the fundamental question confronting Polytechnic University's Othmer Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies when the Institute decided to launch an Honors College for talented undergraduates. Starting in January 2003, we designed and then implemented the Honors College. Our first Honors College class, comprising 25 Freshmen, entered the University in September. We are expecting a significantly larger second class.
A distinguishing feature of our Honors College curriculum is that it is purposefully broad. This characteristic is natural for the Othmer Institute, which was founded two years ago to honor a great benefactor of the University, the late Professor Donald Othmer. The core idea behind the Institute is that is often at the intersection of diverse fields where breakthroughs and radical innovation occur. The Institute is committed to furthering interdisciplinary-based research and educational innovation. Moreover, the University's relatively small size is an advantage for interdisciplinary undertakings.
Students entering the Honors College are encouraged to explore a range of fields. The Freshmen Honors College class is exposed to faculty from diverse disciplines. In their Junior and Senior Years the students are required to take special interdisciplinary seminars.
Close faculty-student relationships are also important. In designing the Honors College, particularly when meeting alumni of previous Honors experiences, we were struck by continuous references to specific professors who literally changed students' lives. Accordingly, we now assign a Faculty Mentor to each Honors College Freshman. One colleague terms this the "Oxford Model". Thus, we now have a bit of the Oxford flavor at the Nation's second oldest engineering school in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn.
We also concluded that the emerging world of technology-related professionals is increasingly global in character. Therefore, our Honors College students must have some meaningful international experience, usually in their Junior Year. This might include a specially designed study tour, a semester at a foreign university or a research project that entails significant work overseas.
Another essential aspect of our Honors College concerns the building of an engaged community of students, faculty and other relevant parties. Co-creation and mutual learning are important. Students assume significant responsibilities for what happens in the Honors College. They completely redesigned our website and also assumed management of the site. They made the new Honors College Lounge their home refurnishing that space to their own specifications. On their own they created a web-based presentation about their experiences during their first semester, which has become a key component in our outreach campaign.
So what have learned? Basically, that high-level undergraduate education in the technology arena must move beyond specialized technology training per se. Instead, there also has to be a commitment to discern connections across different fields, to develop meaningful relationships with committed and accomplished faculty, to appreciate diverse cultures and sources of innovation, and to build an enduring community. Such a blend we believe will well serve our Honors College students and all future technology professionals throughout their lives.#
Dr. Mel Horwitch is a Professor of Management and Director, Othmer Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, NY.
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