Comets to the Core Has Freshmen Teaming Up to Tackle Problems
New Initiative, a Co-curricular Requirement, Emphasizes Teamwork, Critical Thinking and Communication Skills

Comets to the Core

In Comets to the Core, freshman students from different disciplines work as a team to devise solutions to address pressing problems facing society. This year they are tackling the global water crisis.

The University of Texas at Dallas will engage freshman students in a new initiative this fall to help them meet peers from other disciplines, cultivate critical thinking and communication skills, and exhibit problem-solving and teamwork abilities.

Comets to the Core is a co-curricular requirement for all new freshman students except those from specialized high schools where they earned an associate degree concurrent with their diploma. 

Students will complete a group project within the first six weeks of enrollment and again in the fall semester of their junior year when most have completed their core curriculum. 

Each new student is placed in a group with seven other incoming students from different majors. Working together, students use their unique skill sets to propose a multifaceted solution to a problem selected by UT Dallas students, faculty and staff. The focus this year is the global water crisis. 

The initiative will give the University a baseline measurement of new freshman students’ skill sets and eventually provide students with a portfolio of work showing skills they have mastered.

“If we can measure students as they enter, and again after they have completed the core curriculum, we can see what progress they’ve made. This will give us much richer data than before, a more robust set of observations of what students are doing,” said Dr. Marilyn Kaplan, clinical professor and associate dean for undergraduate programs in the Naveen Jindal School of Management and chair of the core curriculum committee.

Dr. Marilyn Kaplan

If we can measure students as they enter, and again after they have completed the core curriculum, we can see what progress they’ve made. This will give us much richer data than before, a more robust set of observations of what students are doing.

Dr. Marilyn Kaplan,
chair of the core curriculum committee

“Since our core is based on specific skill sets, we can do earlier interventions to help students master these skills rather than wait until the end of the entire core curriculum,” Kaplan added.

The first phase of the project emphasizes teamwork. Students receive detailed assignments and begin conducting independent research and engage in online collaboration before they even arrive on campus. Once at UT Dallas, group members will collaborate to identify challenges and propose solutions to the stated problem.

Dr. Michael Carriaga, head of core curriculum assessment at UT Dallas, said the initiative helps students work as a team and see how other disciplines contribute to a group project, which is a valuable marketplace skill.

“Once they start their degree program, students are often siloed in their disciplines. This initiative helps them learn at the beginning of their academic career how to work with people from different backgrounds, and it showcases the importance and usefulness of the skill sets that those people bring to the table,” Carriaga said. 

Since the teams are interdisciplinary, members can draw on their individual strengths to contribute to the group project. For example, an arts and humanities major might develop an effective communication strategy while a computer science major could build a website. A business major could contribute a budget plan or marketing strategy, while someone pursuing the sciences might consider biological or chemical properties that relate to the solution.

The second phase of the project focuses on individual response. Each student will submit a three- to five-minute video pitch attempting to secure funding so that the group’s solution can be implemented.

The initiative will provide the University with a baseline measurement of incoming students, but faculty also will be able to pinpoint those who need help with a particular skill, Carriaga said.

“We are looking primarily for aggregate data, but we can also drill down to the individual level, which will help us to determine if there are any other factors that might predict students’ abilities with respect to critical thinking, communication, or any of the other skill sets we are measuring,” she said.

The program aligns with part of UT Dallas’ Quality Enhancement Plan, which encourages initiatives focused on student engagement and success. Comets to the Core also reflects components of a UT System effort to support student engagement and sense of belonging.

Comets to the Core is a component of UNIV 1010 and UNIV 2020, both of which are requirements for graduation.

Students will vote on the top five best-proposed solutions at the end of their Freshman Seminar course in the fall, ranking projects according to practicality, usefulness and feasibility. The top-ranked groups will present their projects during Research Week in the spring.

In their junior year, students will work with faculty mentors and industrial partners, and, eventually, compete with peers for a scholarship or funding. 

“There is a carrot to this project, and it’s a good one,” Kaplan said. “It will be exciting for students to see what they can accomplish when they come together, working on projects that are bigger than they are as individuals, and competing to produce the best solutions.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].