New curriculum early insights: Sweet Briar’s Leadership Core Curriculum and 3-week courses make their mark on students

Students in Professor Carrie Brown’s three-week course, “The Love Story,” on the stage at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, Va.
Students in Professor Carrie Brown’s three-week course, “The Love Story,” traveled to the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, Va., for a backstage tour, a master class on Shakespeare’s verse and a performance of As You Like It. Photo courtesy of Emma Rummell ’19.

In August, over half of our student body joined four of our best faculty and 17 student-facilitators for a three-week immersion in designing solutions for difficult problems. Finessing an approach that was debuted by IDEO, an international design and consulting firm, and fine-tuned for the academy by Stanford, our Sweet Briar faculty are on the cutting edge of curricular upgrades with their Core 110: Design Thinking. In this course, students were challenged to work in teams to define a problem and come up with creative solutions. And while this is the same approach that we might find in an engineering class, this is the first time that a large percentage of an entire college is working through the same process. Moreover, the five-step strategy that students are learning in this class teaches them empathy (to understand the needs of the audience that they are designing for), ideation (the freedom to brainstorm lots of ideas, even risky ones that are likely to fail), and experimentation (the courage to try again and again). These critical, yet often overlooked, skills will serve students in deciding upon the trajectory of their field of study at Sweet Briar, in creating intellectually compelling projects to spend their $2,000 Grants for Engaged Learning, and in generating innovative solutions to academic and/or social problems.

All of the first-year students took the Design Thinking class, alongside several dozen upperclasswomen. The rest of the sophomores, juniors and seniors were immersed in other three-week classes that ranged from archaeological laboratories to book-making studios and from off-site classrooms (where future K-12 teachers are working with students in a Loudoun County public school and in nearby Amelon Elementary school) to cemeteries (where students in a photography class are learning to use their smartphones to capture compelling compositions).

Other faculty provided students with a seminar-style immersion that usually doesn’t occur until graduate school: President Woo guided her students through the historic context for and complexity of global politics, while Professor Key flipped the script and discussed the impact of pop artists and samurai films on world-wide events. In the creative and performing arts, students were introduced to artists ranging from Shakespeare to Lin-Manuel Miranda in literature and on the stage (complete with field trips to Staunton’s Blackfriars Theatre) and to poetry and creative writing in Sweet Briar’s literary studio. And, finally, our business students were engaged in negotiation tactics and efforts to understand how people use these skills to manage conflict.

Each of these innovative courses showcased the strength of our faculty as stars in their own disciplines as well as the payoffs for our students as they journey alongside their professors for three weeks of in-depth and exploratory coursework on and off campus.