14 Integrated Clusters

In July 2015, Dr. Donald Birx became the president of Plymouth State University. His vision is to organize the entire University into 7 integrated clusters. Each of the disciplines (majors) on campus is associated with one of the clusters, forming disciplinary families. The 7 clusters are:

  • Arts and Technologies
  • Education, Democracy, and Social Change
  • Exploration and Discovery
  • Health and Human Enrichment
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Justice and Security
  • Tourism, Environment, and Sustainable Development

Although your major is associated with one of these clusters, you may work on projects associated with different clusters. For example, Media Studies is part of the Arts and Technologies cluster. Many students majoring in Media Studies are interested in and have skills in telling stories through video. A student may find herself working on a video project for Health and Human Enrichment telling the stories of individuals navigating social services systems. Or on a video project for Exploration and Discovery explaining complex science findings. Or on a video project for Innovation and Entrepreneurship helping an innovative business start up tell its story to potential investors. So your major doesn’t preclude you from working on projects that interest you but that are part of other clusters. In fact, the projects that you might work on require interdisciplinary thinking and integrative learning, both of which are about breaking down boundaries. The boundaries of the clusters are permeable, allowing the free flow of people, resources, knowledge, and so on among them.

Dr. Birx wrote a blog post explaining what the 4 pillars of an integrated cluster-based education are: 1. First Year Seminar; 2. Open Labs; 3. themed General Education Direction courses; and, 4. an Integrated General Education Capstone course. He says:

Together these tools would provide a pathway for students from introduction through conclusion of a cluster-based educational environment. When combined with or built around a major field of study this approach would provide integrated breadth as well as depth.

The concept behind these four tools posits that students would enter into a First-Year Seminar experience that introduces them to cluster learning including a challenge question, an interdisciplinary project experience, an overview and exploration of learning and research methodologies and an understanding to theirs and other clusters. Since we already have First Year Seminars, which are laid out in a very similar manner, interested faculty could use it as a tool to kick off our students’ cluster experiences.

Open laboratory environments with project-based learning experiences are a tool that facilitates engaged scholarship and brings together disciplines and individuals who want to create a multidimensional learning experience. This tool is not restricted to faculty, but is an opportunity for faculty, staff, alumni, retirees, and community members to work together on an integrated learning project/challenge. Requests for proposals for projects (and hopefully in the future, curricular design) go out regularly and with some version of block or adaptive scheduling hopefully coming on line in the future, there could be large periods of multiple “blocks” that could be used to explore this project-based learning approach and create opportunities for collaborative activities as well as field trips etc. Later when graduate programs expand, hopefully there will be involvement of graduate students as well, but for now, more senior students could be involved in a mentoring and project lead capacity.

We have already created a process for general education at Plymouth that has a great deal of flexibility and could be adapted as another cluster tool. If we themed Gen Ed courses together we could create linked course combinations that would lead to a certificate granted upon completion of the sequence. It wouldn’t mean that students had to take the sequence or even that courses couldn’t be interchanged in the sequence, but students would have that option. Sequences that spanned a cluster such as Innovation and Entrepreneurship or Tourism, Environment and Sustainable Development could provide an integrated perspective along with a major while still meeting the existing guidelines of our General Education program. In some cases an individual class can achieve that goal, but often that is not the case. Moreover, while individual Gen Ed courses have many elements that relate to a student’s major area of concentration, students often do not see the connections, context or relatedness and there is often not enough critical mass to establish that coherence in an individual course. …

Finally, an integrative capstone course would be the last part of a student’s undergraduate education occurring in either the last part of the student’s junior or senior year. It would be the bookend for the First-Year Seminar and integrate the depth and breadth of learning over the last four years.

At PSU, the integrated clusters are the mechanism that we are using to encourage interdisciplinary thinking and integrative learning.


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First Year Seminar Readings by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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