Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

January 20, 2015

Supporting success through an integrated core curriculum

Discovery Core for first-year and pre-major students at UW Bothell

“The Discovery Core is one the most high-impact, revolutionary attributes of the Bothell campus.”

Ismaila Maidadi ‘12
Program Manager, CUSP; B.A., Global Studies and Policy Studies, UW Bothell


First-year students at UW Bothell are immersed in a curriculum designed both to inspire creativity and to bridge the transition to the rigor of college-level academic work. When the Bothell campus added freshmen and sophomore students in 2006, the campus also created the Center for University Studies and Programs (CUSP) to house support services for first-year and pre-major students. Then CUSP launched the Discovery Core, an innovative core curriculum that welcomes students into small seminars and gets them academically engaged through creative course offerings such as “The Biography of a Commodity,” “Utopias and Dystopias,” “Food and Social Justice” and “Dreaming.”

Bringing resources to students, rather than sending students to resources: While the Discovery Core classes are innovative, so is the curriculum’s approach to bringing student success strategies and support into the classroom. The faculty who teach first-year seminars break the ice between new students and the people dedicated to supporting them by, for example, asking the director of the writing center to spend an hour in their classroom modeling how to do a deep read of a scholarly article. “The literature suggests that this student body doesn’t do ‘optional’ very much,” says CUSP Program Manager Ismaila Maidadi. “They were in second or third grade when ‘No Child Left Behind’ was passed, and they’ve been taught to the test. Because most resources are optional, those things we think are crucial we are moving into the classroom. We want students to be able to easily and quickly access any resources they need.”

A curriculum that engages both students and faculty: The Discovery Core offers new students a way to have fun, make friends and learn how to navigate the challenges of college life while also fulfilling general education requirements. But the program is designed to inspire its instructors, too. “We like to think the Discovery Core seminars are not just a rich opportunity for students, but also for faculty,” says CUSP director Leslie Ashbaugh. In a competitive selection process, faculty from across campus apply to teach in the Discovery Core. Lecturer Kristy Leissle says, “The openness CUSP has had to my proposals for content—which range from chocolate to science fiction—really spurs my pedagogical creativity. In the Discovery Core, I am teaching in an open and welcoming environment where innovation is encouraged.”

The Discovery Core’s interdisciplinary team teaching introduces students to a range of disciplines in their first year of college, which helps them discover what kind of degree they might be interested in pursuing.

Jennifer Atkinson
Faculty Coordinator, Discovery Core; Lecturer, IAS, UW Bothell


High-impact experiences make learning meaningful and memorable: The Discovery Core curriculum deliberately and explicitly incorporates what the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) calls “high-impact practices,” educational experiences with a demonstrated effect on student retention and engagement. Faculty coordinator Jennifer Atkinson, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (IAS), sees this as a hallmark of the Discovery Core. “Students aren’t shut away in their classrooms,” she says. “They go out into the community for field trips, service learning, research in the wetlands or North Creek Forest; they interview workers in local industries or activists in the streets; and we regularly host guest speakers from the community in our classes.”

Collaboration is the key: CUSP is a team effort from the location of staff offices to the development of curricula. In order to help students find what they’re looking for and foster collaboration, the Bothell campus brought partners such as CUSP, academic advising, veterans services, study abroad, disability support services and career services into one Student Success Center. The Discovery Core is also a joint effort. When faculty and staff met last summer to revamp the curriculum, they were joined by leaders from the Teaching and Learning Center, the Quantitative Skills Center, Career Services, Institutional Research and several other units. “It’s important to have all the key stakeholders in the room,” says Ashbaugh. As faculty coordinator, Atkinson ensures collaboration continues throughout the academic year, and that the Discovery Core faculty meet regularly to discuss teaching best practices.

Student success in three stages: The Discovery Core is designed to help students transition from a top-down high school model of learning to a student-centered, inquiry-based model of learning, says Ashbaugh. The curriculum tackles this challenge in three phases:

  • Discovery (fall): Students learn about campus resources and college-level academic skills, from interpreting written sources to reading a syllabus
  • Research (winter): Students build on discovery skills while focusing on developing new research skills, such as critical analysis and facility with academic citation standards
  • Reflection (spring): Students write about their intellectual development, reevaluate which majors best suit their skills and interests, and curate a portfolio of their work to present at a spring showcase

Overall, the Discovery Core sequence is designed to prepare first-year and pre-major students to take full advantage of their college

“I would not have known about resources like the writing center or librarians had it not been for Discovery Core classes. They told us early on about campus resources so we felt like we knew how to seek out help and where to seek out help. College can be hard to figure out and navigate.”

Shauniece Drayton ‘14
B.A., Community Psychology, UW Bothell


education. “Most students will change their minds about what they want to focus on,” says Ashbaugh. “The whole point is to expose them to a rich environment and a diverse set of ideas and experiences, and hopefully by second year they’re finding a pathway for themselves that includes study abroad, service learning, undergraduate research and other high-impact opportunities we offer on campus.”

Wrapping resources into assignments: The faculty and student services staff who design the Discovery Core curriculum intentionally integrate learning outside of the classroom into class assignments. For example, one early low-stakes writing assignment puts students in touch with a variety of resources while emphasizing the value of drafting and revising. After reviewing first drafts, their instructor uses class time to schedule one-on-one meetings with each student to offer feedback. “Approaching a faculty member can be intimidating,” says Ashbaugh. “This breaks that barrier.” Students are then sent to the writing center, and asked to fill out a form reflecting on their experience—“Not only about using the service, but also imagining how it could be useful to them going forward,” says Ashbaugh. Students then go through a round of peer review before submitting the paper again for a final grade.

The ePortfolio is a communication tool, workspace and archive: Throughout the Discovery Core, students build an ePortfolio that is more than an academic archive—it’s designed to become a snapshot of their curricular and co-curricular life throughout four years.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to link academic passion to life and careers.