The Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program at Purdue University is designed to provide students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines, which is the majority of the student population at Purdue, with a coherent sequence of liberal arts courses aligned with their majors and interests. With more undergraduates at Purdue—and nationwide—gravitating toward focused, pre-professional degree programs that provide established career paths but less flexibility to take other courses, a program like Cornerstone allows students to develop crucial skills and knowledge cultivated through a liberal arts curriculum.
Cornerstone seeks to create broadly educated students who thrive in diverse environments, swiftly adapt to new situations, and become effective communicators and engaged citizens. It provides students in highly concentrated degree programs like engineering, management, and technology the ability to meet core degree requirements while developing a deeper understanding of people and societies through the lens of the liberal arts. Through 15 credits of thematically aligned courses culminating in an undergraduate certificate, students in these degree programs connect the liberal arts to their professional aspirations through a set of courses that strengthen valuable and timeless skills in written and oral communication, creative thinking, and problem-solving that are essential to advancing their careers.
The Cornerstone Curriculum
First-year students in the Cornerstone program enroll in a two-semester sequence called Transformative Texts (see syllabi for Transformative Texts I and Transformative Texts II). This course is designed to meet university requirements for cultivating writing and oral communication skills while introducing students to enduring works of literature and philosophy. Faculty members from a range of liberal arts disciplines teach in the Transformative Texts sequence, engaging students with foundational literature such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dante’s Inferno, and connecting the context in which they were written to relevant issues of today. The Transformative Text sequence creates a sense of intellectual community and belonging for the students as there is a degree of commonality across the sections: at least half the assigned readings on the syllabi are expected to come from a list of works determined by the participating faculty. As of 2019, 62 faculty are affiliated with Cornerstone and teach the Transformative Texts sequence; the majority are full-time faculty members.
The teaching of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, proves to be especially relevant to engineering and technology students interested in artificial intelligence. The course assignments extend far beyond a critical reading of the novel, as students in past semesters also attended a Frankenstein film festival and a theatrical performance of the original work by Shelley, and even participated in a short fiction contest in which they wrote about creating their own monster.
Outside of the creation of the Transformative Texts sequence, the majority of courses offered through Cornerstone already existed within Purdue’s University Core Curriculum (UCC). These courses were simply organized in a way that reflected 21st-century themes and concerns and provided students with a menu of options in various interest areas that would also meet general education or other degree requirements.
The courses are organized into five thematic areas: science and technology; environment and sustainability; healthcare and medicine; management and organizations; and conflict resolution and justice. Cornerstone allows students the flexibility to choose courses that reflect their professional interests while also fulfilling their University Core Curriculum requirements. This certificate also offers a new interdisciplinary course called “Cornerstones of Constitutional Law,” which offers undergraduates the opportunity to read case law to understand legal reasoning and constitutional doctrines and explore how the forces of technology, economics, politics, scientific development, and medicine transform constitutional law.
One Engineering student on the Cornerstone experience:
My experiences in Cornerstone have been transformative to me both as a human being and an engineer. Throughout my first-year classes as an engineer, the ideas of collaboration and communication have been emphasized... Beyond enhancing my ability to collaborate and communicate, Cornerstone has made me more culturally aware and forced me to challenge several of my own accepted ideas.
Cornerstone began with a pilot year in 2017-18, offering a small number of sections of Transformative Texts to around 100 students. In 2018-19, the program offered 33 sections of Transformative Texts each semester and taught a total of 1,957 students. As of fall 2019, 60 sections are scheduled and have 1,776 students enrolled. Another 57 sections will be taught in spring 2020. Many of these students will proceed to the 200- and 300-level courses to fulfill the additional 9 credits required for the certificate.
Purdue faculty have found that these assigned texts do more than simply familiarize students with important literature: they inspire. As with other forms of art, literature often spurs creativity; the faculty believe that students who participate in Transformative Texts leave with the resources that allow them to take the concepts and ideas they learned from the texts and apply them in innovative ways to their future class discussions, course assignments, and eventually, their careers.
First-year students enrolled in Cornerstone
sections of Transformative Texts scheduled
Faculty members teach in the Cornerstone curriculum
Workshops like “How I Teach This Text,” which bring together faculty members who facilitate sections of Transformative Texts, have been instrumental to the execution and expansion of Cornerstone. These workshops allow faculty who have taught works like Plato’s Republic or Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to share their course syllabi and assignments, and for others to learn about how a particular text works within the context of the program.
The workshops also serve as a platform to consider how to best serve STEM students, which comprise the majority of Cornerstone’s enrollees. Faculty and staff have found that while many of these STEM students would not traditionally be drawn to foundational texts, they are capable of engaging with the content and benefitting from the discourse.
Like any major transformation, the execution of Cornerstone at Purdue has not been seamless. While some academic colleges at Purdue were quick to jump on board with the innovative approach to first-year general education courses, the agreement to implement Cornerstone across campus requires a significant amount of work for departments to rewrite academic plans of study. The College of Liberal Arts made significant efforts to prepare faculty members to teach new courses. The effort has paid off. For example, Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute now requires most of its undergraduates to complete the Cornerstone certificate as a requirement for graduation. They see the value in ensuring their students complement their technical training with liberal arts perspectives and skills imparted through the program.
Even disseminating information about the program across a large institution like Purdue can be a challenge. For example, among first-year students, academic advisors have a significant influence over the courses students take. Cornerstone’s administrators in the College of Liberal Arts have hosted a brunch each spring for academic advisors to learn more about how the certificate enhances a Purdue education.
Future Goals and Expansion
Purdue, as a large public research university, has taken on the challenge to provide a liberal arts grounding to as many of its undergraduates as possible. Based on the burgeoning success of the certificate program at Purdue, Cornerstone has the potential to provide a solution to ensure undergraduates receive a broad education and can serve as a model for other institutions.
Cornerstone Director, Melinda Zook, would love to see the dissemination of the program on a national scale:
The Cornerstone program is worthy of replication at other large public universities. It’s a simple model: Liberal Arts colleges offer new, exciting, faculty-taught gateway courses for students across the campus, teaching them the communication skills they will need to succeed as well as a love for learning and the life of the mind. Secondly, this model offers purposeful pathways for students to fulfill their general education requirements by taking advanced courses in the liberal arts.
Programs like Cornerstone have the potential to disseminate liberal arts learning across the curriculum and empower the humanities and the social sciences, bringing them back to the center of a college education.