Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

January 20, 2015

Independent Study Plans in Community, Environment & Planning (CEP)

Helpling undergraduates direct their own learning

“Helping students prepare for their next steps has always been part of our philosophy. There shouldn’t be a wall between academics and what we often call ‘the real world.’”

Caitlin Dean ‘06 ‘10
Program Manager, CEP, 2010-2014; B.A., CEP; M.Ed.; MPA


In 1994 a group of faculty and students in the College of Built Environments used principles of the new community-based planning movement to create their version of the ideal major. Caitlin Dean recalls, “They asked questions like, ‘How can we prepare students for the real world?’ and, ‘What does a holistic education mean?’ ” Their work resulted in the Community, Environment & Planning (CEP) program. As program manager from 2010 to 2014, Dean worked with Director Christopher Campbell to grow the program while preserving the founders’ mission: helping undergraduates direct their own learning.

Students approach the interdisciplinary curriculum with a goal and a plan: To help students structure their education, CEP requires each incoming student to create an Independent Study Plan (ISP). Students make revisions as their interests evolve. Margot Malarkey ‘12 began the program focusing on environmental studies, but exposure to graduate-level urban studies classes sparked her interest in the intersection of housing, politics and academics, and she altered her ISP to reflect that. “The cyclical process of planning, acting, reflecting and changing your plan—the iterative cycle of learning—is important not just for academics but also for life,” says Dean. “We hope students will adopt that mode of thinking and take it out into their careers and personal lives.”

Graduate Jen Hamblin has done just that. Remembering her own ISP, she says, “It was the first time in my entire life I was forced to sit down and be intentional about something that hadn’t happened yet. CEP requires you to come up with a strategy—’You say you want to get to the moon by Thursday… so, where is your map?’ ” Hamblin now uses these skills regularly in her career as a consultant aiding companies and institutions in diversifying their workforces. “I just developed a growth model for my CEO with a three-year projection and a risk assessment for each phase. Long-term planning is a major, critical skill for the professional world.”

Independence, but with structure: “The first generation of the program was seen as an experiment,” says Dean. The program philosophy still emphasizes learning by doing, including the value of making mistakes. However, the program team has also made changes to the curriculum, such as establishing required classes for students working on capstone projects. “In the past, students were expected to work mostly independently,” says Dean, “but we learned we needed to build in more structure to support all of them, not just the top 25 percent who know how to draw on the resources available to them. The majority of undergraduates still need modeling, coaching and guidance.”

“I think the first time I realized how much CEP mimics the real world was not my first job but my second. It required a lot of strategic planning. In CEP it’s called ‘governance.’ In the real world it’s called ‘boardroom meetings.’”

Jen Hamblin ‘07
B.A., CEP, minor in disability studies


Shared governance builds student leadership skills: CEP advertises itself as “built for and by its students,” and this shared governance model permeates the entire program. Students take the lead on the majority of decisions about the major and its curriculum. Final decisions require full consensus of current students, which can be a challenging exercise in patience, negotiation and building buy-in. Campbell says, “In CEP, students are not only responsible for themselves, they are responsible for the whole CEP community. This means they must learn how to make decisions together, resolve disputes and respect individual differences as they work towards common goals. For many students, the skills they learn through governing the major are the skills that prove most important to them in their careers and civic lives.”

Students gain confidence from the confidence shown in them: “CEP not only taught me, it also empowered me to contribute to the learning process,” says Dan Fitting ‘14, who returned to college after his military service. “Until I found CEP, I felt like I was only going to school to learn what other people already knew.”

“CEP’s flexibility allowed me to take risks and test my ideas in a safe setting. It also pushed me to take ownership of my decisions—both the successes and the failures.”

Margot Malarkey ‘12
B.A., CEP, minor in urban design and planning


Through his capstone project he created new knowledge, helping local residents inventory historically significant architecture in their community and develop a plan for its preservation, refining skills he now uses as Sustainability and Facilities Coordinator for Skagit County.

Flexibility is challenging but pays off in the long run: “I would sometimes have an identity crisis,” says Malarkey. “I would look at my friends in business school with a clear path forward and say, ‘What am I doing?!’ ” Campbell notes, “Being responsible for your education is hard.” He adds, “It can be frustrating at times but when students come back after they graduate, they say, ‘Ah, now I get it.’ ” Malarkey agrees that work experience helped her gain perspective on the value of her major. As a research associate at an environmental consulting firm she frequently draws on the meeting facilitation, planning, presentation and analytical skills she gained from the program.

Learn More

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