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Should the core be just four?

You've had the conversation before. Probably dozens of times. And it always ends with that same bemused look on your friend's face: "Wait, you only take four classes a semester?"

You nod and explain that they're hard classes, that they take up your time.

But is the current academic system, in which students receive a single credit for most of their classes and most take just four courses each semester, the best to achieve Duke's lofty academic goals?

Some students and faculty say they think it is too limiting a framework, suggesting instead that the school assign credit based on the number of hours a class meets on a weekly basis.

"I've taught at Duke for 16 years, and it is the only school I've been at that assigns one credit per class rather than [per hours met]," reflects Tod Laursen, department chair of mechanical engineering and materials science. "I've always felt that it's a bit confining.... It's certainly true that all classes are not created equal."

Laursen says he thinks switching Duke's system to credit hours would benefit students in all disciplines, both academically and mentally.

A new system could create more classes in which students could learn a particular skill or gain a certain experience, Laursen says, adding that it benefits students' personal health to be able to explore topics outside of their majors.

"[Pratt] tends to disproportionately attract students with various interests outside of engineering," he explains. "I tell them that [taking electives] makes them a different kind of engineer."

And it's not just engineers who would take advantage of having more academic flexibility. Physical education and house courses are already some of the most popular offerings at the University, and some students have expressed interest in taking classes that improve life skills without the burden of a large workload.

"There are a lot of classes I'd like to see as a half-credit, such as cooking or personal finance," junior English major Tracy Gold claims.

Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki says the University will continue to push the envelope of college education by being flexible, opening up discussion and following the lead of successful programs such as DukeEngage.

Nowicki stresses that although the course-credit system will be discussed by administrators, changing it is not necessarily a short-term goal. He adds that administrators will be analyzing Duke's workings over the next 15 years, looking to make further improvements-focusing on medical care, research and education-by the school's 100th anniversary in 2024.

"The way I think about it, in 15 years what we're doing in medical care and research will be familiar," Nowicki says. "I'm not sure that in undergraduate education, we should be doing the same thing in 15 years.... If I or another professor were transported into the future, we should see something different."

Anjali Bhatia, a junior and Robertson Scholar, has experienced first-hand the options under both crediting systems, since the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers course credit based on contact hours. She remarks that many students at the other end of Tobacco Road typically take more than four courses a semester.

"They are able to get a true liberal arts education and experience things you couldn't in high school," says Bahtia, adding that UNC's size makes it easier to increase students' options.

At Duke, a focus on improving students' degree of engaged and globalized learning will be the top priority, according to Nowicki.

"This is following [President Richard Brodhead's] lead," Nowicki says. "He's challenged what education means at Duke. We should be doing knowledge in the service of society.... How do you bring that to your undergraduate educational program?"

Nowicki adds that certain core values, namely civic engagement, classroom learning and personal enrichment, will remain at the heart of the issue.

"We want to make sure Duke stays flexible," he says. "We are envisioning how to make Duke a leader, [but] we want to be Duke. We could be the place that is defining American education in 15 years."


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