Faculty and Students (Re)imagine “Impact on Society” in the Core

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Hixon Center director

The heart of the Harvey Mudd curriculum is the so-called Common Core Curriculum, aka “the Core”. Filling much of the students’ first three semesters, the Core provides them with broad foundational knowledge in the STEM disciplines, an introduction to the humanities, social sciences and the arts, and important cross-disciplinary skills such as academic writing and critical inquiry that help them thrive at Mudd and in their future careers. The Core supports the College’s mission to “educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians well versed in all of these areas and in the humanities and the social sciences so that they may assume leadership in their fields with a clear understanding of the impact of their work on society.”

Yet, the accelerating pace of scientific discovery, technological breakthroughs, advances in pedagogy, and many social and environmental changes necessitate that we review, adjust, and revise the Core from time to time in order to continue to reflect this mission. For more than a year now, the faculty—with input from students, alumni, and others—has pursued a deliberative process organized by the Core Review Committee (CRC) to review and revise the current Core. To this end the faculty has defined the following guiding principle for the revised Core:

  • The Core Curriculum at Harvey Mudd College seeks to nurture students’ intellectual curiosity and joy of learning, provide them with foundational knowledge and skills needed for further study in STEM disciplines, and begin a critical engagement with the humanities, social sciences, and the arts.  In keeping with HMC’s liberal-arts approach to STEM education, the Core engages students in thinking critically about consequential problems and complex issues, making connections across disciplinary boundaries, communicating and collaborating effectively, and understanding how their personal and professional actions impact the world around them. 

To strengthen the ability of Harvey Mudd students to understand and shape the impact of their work on society and the world around them, the Core review process is exploring options for making the links between the Core, on the one hand, and society and the environment, on the other, more explicit. It is also seeking to provide more room for students to reflect and to better use the tools and frameworks developed in the humanities and social sciences to critically engage with questions at the intersections of technology, society, and the environment.

One such exploration was a design-thinking workshop on (Re)imagining Impact in the Core. Facilitated by Hive Director Fred Leichter and Kareem Collie from the Hive on March 13 and co-organized by the CRC, Natalie Kadonaga from the CRC Student Engagement subcommittee, and myself, the event brought together a nearly even mix of students and faculty to go through the first three of the 5-stages of design-thinking—empathize, define, ideate—to consider opportunities for better integrating societal impact in the Core. Reminded by Leichter that design thinking is about re-framing problems in human-centric ways, focusing on needs before constraints, and geared towards generating large numbers of ideas that stretch the realm of the possible, we found our minds (re)opened and the conversation broadened. In pairs and groups, participants interviewed each other, generated “How might we …?” questions, and produced more than 250 ideas.

Beyond the quantity of ideas, I was impressed by the bubbly creativity that emerged in the process and the profound level of caring among the participants for the wellbeing and success of our college community. Although we had to wrap up the exercise after the ideation phase and much work remains to be done to develop an implementable new Core, the design-thinking workshop showed how the problem space can be reframed and illuminated to see problems more clearly and find solutions in unexpected corners.