A group of students huddles around their teacher, all participants in EDUC 2010: Project-Based Learning in Baton Rouge.

Courtesy of Cornell University

A group of students huddles around their teacher, all participants in EDUC 2010: Project-Based Learning in Baton Rouge.

April 30, 2019

Nearly A Decade After Department’s Demise, Education Minor Continues to Offer Students a Path to the Front of Classroom

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Tucked away in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is a small, unpresuming minor few would suspect of a school better known for dairy and plant genetics.

The education minor — housed in CALS, but open to students of all colleges — is all that remains after the dissolution of Cornell’s education department nearly a decade ago. The University shut it down in 2010, and its faculty either retired, moved to other universities or dispersed to other departments.

“The department’s future has been debated in the college for several years,” Dean Kathryn Boor said in a University press release at the time. “CALS has come to the difficult conclusion that we do not have the additional resources that would need to be invested in the program to ensure its preeminence as we move into the future.”

Currently, the education courses are offered under the code “EDUC,” but there remains no consolidated department for the discipline. Instead, the education minor falls under the auspices of development sociology.

The education minor is intended for students interested in pursuing any career within the field of education — whether that be a traditional teaching path, a role in academic policy or a dozen other more niche professions, such as curriculum development or educational technology.

A key characteristic of the minor is the freedom it provides for individualized structure, opening up the minor to each student’s personal goals. For instance, if a student studying abroad finds a course they think fits well with the minor, it’s an option to count that course towards the minor’s elective credits, according to Minor Coordinator Prof. Bryan Duff, development sociology.

“The minor is almost infinitely flexible,” he said. “That’s one of the nice things about being a minor — minors can afford to be very flexible, and we try to take full advantage of that.”

EDUC courses are distinguished by their intense focus on applied learning. EDUC 2410: Art of Teaching, for instance, requires that students spend a total of 30 hours over the course of the semester completing fieldwork either on campus or in the Ithaca community — which might involve working with local youth off campus, adults on campus or working at an afterschool program with the YMCA.

Fieldwork serves largely as the crux of the minor, even for those who choose to pursue policy work instead of hands-on careers. Many other EDUC courses have similar time requirements for practical application, including every course Duff teaches.

“You learn in the classroom, you go out and apply what you’ve learned, and very often it doesn’t work exactly the way it’s supposed to work,” Duff said. “We spend a lot of time in class reflecting and talking — what went well, what could you try next time? A lot of our courses have a very workshop-ey flavor.”

Although the minor does not offer any specialized tracks, students can choose to concentrate on K-12, adult education or community and lifelong learning, according to the minor’s website.

According to Duff, around 40 to 45 students graduate with the minor every year, a number that has remained relatively steady over the last handful of years.

“I think it’s fair to say that if you want to study education, Cornell does not make that easy,” Duff said. “So when we do find a student who wants to study it, we want to go out of our way to support them.”

Duff — a former high school teacher who joined Cornell in 2010 — originally worked in Cornell’s Masters of Arts in Teaching program before switching to coordinating the education minor. The program — just like the department — was discontinued a few years ago due to changes in New York State accreditation requirements, according to Duff. The last class of MAT students graduated in 2014.

According to the CALS website, students who complete the education minor have the opportunity to streamline their continued study at Ithaca College’s MAT program.

Now, despite the lack of an official department, the discipline thrives on at Cornell among the students passionate about pursuing the study of education.  A 2017 survey of seniors’ postgraduate plans shows that 10.4 percent of CALS graduates found employment in education.

“There are a lot of students who want to study education and can’t major in it,” Duff said. “Part of my job is to help direct them towards the courses that are spread across campus that would help them meet whatever goals they have in the field of education.”

Duff credits Engaged Cornell, a University initiative driving Cornell involvement in local and partner communities, for providing not only the funding and human resources to support the minor and EDUC classes, but also the energy and excitement around it.

“The growth in the education minor and the affection that many students have for it — I think a lot of that is due to Engaged Cornell,” he said. “I think the education minor really got a shot in the arm, in a good way, from Engaged Cornell.”

As for whether the education department will ever be reinstated, Duff does not see room in Cornell’s near future for a revival.

“I do not have any sense at all that there is any sense of momentum behind bringing the department back,” he said.