Students discuss improvements to undergraduate education at 2nd fireside chat of semester

Ethan Epstein/Staff

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sat down with students at the University House for the second fireside chat of the semester Tuesday to discuss the limitations of structured academic learning methods, such as breadth requirements and general major courses.

The group of 15 students, hailing from different majors and years, provided ideas to improve the undergraduate learning experience. Students advocated for methods commonly used in exploratory classes, such as seminars, DeCals and student organizations. Some said they gained more from these unique learning environments than from other traditional classroom and lecture settings.

But Alex Kern, a junior computer science major, said that disciplinary learning inside the classroom and the application of knowledge outside of the classroom are equally important and that the need for alternative learning spaces doesn’t signify “a failure of the curriculum.”

“I don’t think you can teach a lot of the lessons you learn in student groups in the classroom,” Kern said, calling the diversity of nontraditional learning spaces on campus “healthy.”

Some students expressed personal frustrations with the current curriculum in place requiring breadth courses, saying such classes actually hinder exploration in their respective fields of interest.

“I feel like the whole idea of breadths really restricts me. … If I really don’t like science, I shouldn’t be forced to take it,” said Andre Luu, an anthropology and political science freshman. “(Students) are not going there to learn, but to fulfill.”

Dirks said he understands that some requirements will not always line up with disciplines students are interested in, but breadths are meant to “broaden” students. One of the biggest issues regarding institutional requirements, according to Dirks, is finding a balance between “free choice” to study any area of interest and establishing “common experiences” among students.

To add to one of these common experiences, Dirks mentioned a potential data analytics breadth requirement that would be “attached to what you’re interested” in, citing computational thinking as an increasingly important and ubiquitous skill for students post-graduation.

“There’s a whole world — from arguments to the way your mobile phone displays things to you — that (students) need to learn a little bit better,” Dirks said.

The role of grades, particularly in major requirements, was also discussed. Milad Razavi, a junior in mechanical engineering, said GPAs can often become psychological barriers that hinder exploration and learning.

“Berkeley could be an incubator of creativity, but it’s becoming a graveyard of passions,” Razavi said.

Dirks said the campus is currently evaluating breadth courses, seminars and capstone experiences as a part of the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Initiative.

Improving undergraduate discipline education may not require completely replacing the current institutional class structure with nontraditional models, but rather a “cross-pollination” between the two learning styles to promote comprehensive undergraduate learning, Kern said.

Contact Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ayoonhendricks.