College honors programs should be inclusive, grassroots and hands-on

Credit: Dilynn DiLeonardo/SJSU

Students attend a class as part of San Jose State’s Honors X program.

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Generation Z is poised to be one of our most activated generations in decades.

In an era when we grapple with record economic inequality, gun violence and a climate crisis, youth worldwide are showing up and seeking ways to solve these challenging problems. As alarm bells sound about the decline of democracy, young people are turning out to vote in record numbers and expressing more belief in the power of engagement than their elders. While politicians struggle to agree on how to best slow the acceleration of climate change, young social entrepreneurs around the world are engaged in grassroots innovations to reduce waste and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Where are schools and universities in this narrative? How do we step outside the preoccupation with learning loss and concepts our incoming college students have not yet mastered and nurture the energy and passion of a generation that will bear the brunt of our most challenging societal problems?

At San José State University, we are tackling these questions with a new approach to honors education that is interdisciplinary and eschews traditional markers such as GPA to intentionally include historically underrepresented youth. So many societal problems disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color, and the solutions to those problems must center students from the communities most impacted.

Our approach is to provide a space for students to work collaboratively with peers across colleges, learn from faculty across disciplines, and address the world’s most pressing issues.

Our program takes what is best from traditional “honors” programs — excellence, immersion, mentorship — and focuses more deeply on inclusivity, creativity and solutions-based education. We invited input from community colleges on how to best serve our most curious and talented transfer students. And we studied existing honors programs and interviewed experts from many other institutions to learn from their experiences.

We settled on the following themes:

  1. Being the change: A focus on “honors” with an emphasis on jump-starting societal transformation and disrupting the status quo. This included an admissions process proactive in seeking out students who might not see themselves as “honors” students with an emphasis on reaching students from historically underserved communities.
  2. Academic inclusivity: GPA would not be a requirement of the program; rather students would provide answers to short essay questions. Nearly 200 applications were received for the first group.
  3. Centering transfer students: An initial focus on transfer students, a population not typically central to honors education and one that could benefit from early assimilation into the university community.
  4. Owning the learning: Stressing cross-disciplinary, integrative approaches to problem-solving, using problem-based learning techniques to foster student ownership of the learning process.
  5. Collaboration: Organizing around student teams, reflecting student interdisciplinarity and working together on projects to intervene in vital social issues with an eye to the future.
  6. An emphasis on wicked problems: Each cohort of students would work on an overarching shared problem, e.g., “Developing Sustainable Societies,” “Democracy and Technology,” or “Water and Conflict in the 21st Century.”
  7. Value-based outcomes: Creativity, entrepreneurship, community, ecology, equity, social and environmental justice, accessible healthcare, and technology would be intrinsically embedded in the choice of theme.
  8. Exposure to expertise: All courses would aim for a minimum of 25% of content to be provided by external experts and industry and community leaders whose work is connected to the challenge at hand.

We completed the first three-week intensive HonorsX course with 20 students this summer. Seventy-five percent of our students are transfers. Our students represent, in microcosm, the diversity of San José State. Over this time, interdisciplinary student teams were able to select the problems that most interested them and then demonstrate why it was important to solve those problems.

Students’ ideas ranged from innovative solutions for removing trash from local beaches, the manufacture of tampon applicators using hemp-based plastic, and repurposing used solar panels. The rest of the program — over the next two years — is about figuring out the “how” of the idea: how to do research, consider the impact on different populations, test feasibility, assess sustainable financial models, consult researchers and experts in other domains within the university and beyond, and to present a workable solution to a wide audience.

Honors education should not be exclusive or pretentious. It should be inclusive, grassroots and hands-on. SJSU’s goal is for this to be an experience for students that is way more than a minor, but an opportunity to become change makers, problem-solvers and make an impact on the world.

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Ruma Chopra is the interim director of the San Jose State University honors program. Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. is provost and senior vice president of academic affairs. 

Marcelle Taylor Dougan, assistant professor, department of public health and recreation; Ellen Middaugh, associate professor, department of child and adolescent development; Dustin Mulvaney, professor, department of environmental studies; Sarika Pruthi, associate professor, school of global innovation and leadership; David Wagner, assistant professor, department of chemical and materials engineering contributed to this commentary. 

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