March 29, 2005
By DOUGLAS HAIRSTON
Bulletin Staff Writer
Some of the skepticism the New College of Virginia is facing James Madison University's College of Integrated Science and Technology (CISAT) faced when it was launched in 1992.
CISAT has grown to become one of the largest and most popular departments on campus, said JMU professor Dr. Ron G. Kander. Likewise, he envisions NCV overcoming the opposition of the skeptics and being embraced by both the region and the state.
Besides an innovative approach to education, NCV and CISAT have two other elements in common -- Kander and Dr. Ronald Carrier.
Carrier, the former President of JMU, was the architect of the New College of Virginia and CISAT.
Kander is the department head of CISAT and also worked with Carrier last year to develop NCV.
He is a New College Planning Commission member as well. Created to continue the work of establishing the college, the commission comprises nine members and was put together earlier this month when Carrier announced his retirement.
Similar to what is proposed for NCV, CISAT is based on integrated disciplines, with the idea of facilitating problem solving. "A student, for example, might learn chemistry by studying an environmental issue," Kander said.
And like NCV, CISAT is based on teamwork and critical thinking.
Because of those innovations, CISAT also had to persuade naysayers within academic and governmental circles, Kander said.
Today, the department is 650-students strong with 45 faculty members, he noted.
Kander said NCV is designed to be an economic revitalization institution integrating liberal arts with industry and government. As such, critical thinking, teamwork and problem solving are instrumental to the curriculum, he added.
One example of the type of project students at NCV might be engaged in is under way at CISAT.
Seeking to find alternative fuels, students have developed biodiesel fuel from vegetable oil, Kander said, adding that as a result of that work, Harrisonburg city buses now run on a mixture of regular and biodiesel fuel.
The students also are working with local farmers to supplement their crops with the soy beans whose oil produces the fuel.
Students also are working on the manufacture of a rare protein to treat dry-eye syndrome, he said.
In traditional educational approaches to technology, students are taught subject content -- formulas, procedures and processes -- Kander said.
That approach fails today because the Internet puts such information at a student's fingertips. Today's students must focus on how to use that wealth of information to solve problems and how to work with others to find and develop solutions, Kander said.
That is the goal behind the design of CISAT and NCV, he said.
One of NCV's most novel innovations is its schedule, Kander acknowledged. NCV is a proposed baccalaureate degree program consisting of 28 months divided into 10-week quarters. Students would attend school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Kander said students would be in class four hours of the eight hours. The other four would be dedicated to lab work, community projects or other curriculum activities, he added.
These innovations have been successfully tried elsewhere, Kander said. "It's simply that we are the first to put them together in a comprehensive program."
That may be why Kander remains positive about NCV's chances for approval with the state.
In January, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) issued a report critical of the establishment of NCV and its location in Southside. But Kander said it is SCHEV's job "to be prudent -- take risky ideas, ask the hard questions and make us answer. In that, they are doing what they should be doing to protect taxpayers.
"If we can't articulate the strengths and integrity of the model, then shame on us," he said.
Marking the development of CISAT, Kander said the idea for the department arose in 1988 when the General Assembly called for the creation of a commission to outline the "University of the 21st Century."
At that time, according to the CISAT Web site, government, academic and community leaders recognized that while "higher education could not solve the many problems confronting our nation, it was believed that they could provide leadership in bringing about the educational reform required for people to begin working out solutions."
That following year, the commission issued its report to then state Gov. Gerald Baliles, the site added. Baliles currently serves as senior adviser to the New College Planning Commission.
Called "The Case for Change," the report advocated "innovative approaches to education," the site stated.
Carrier and JMU did not wait for official recommendations. With state approval, they developed and launched a CISAT pilot program.
Kander hopes the success that CISAT has found will repeat itself with the New College of Virginia.
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