Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

January 23, 2014

New UHC programs to focus on health professions

Plans are in the works at the University Honors College for two new programs oriented toward students interested in health professions.

UHC Dean Edward M. Stricker

UHC Dean Edward M. Stricker

UHC Dean Edward M. Stricker made the announcement during his annual state of the honors college address Jan. 17.

Although Pitt offers no premed major, two-thirds of the students who apply here express interest in pursuing a career in the health professions, he said.

Stricker said he is working with the dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences to create an honors track of courses that would provide a suitable background for the health professions, estimating that the program could be in place by the upcoming academic year.

“Whereas traditionally a background for a premed student would focus on the natural sciences — biology and chemistry — the medical schools have finally realized it’s useful for future physicians to have a good background in the humanities and social sciences as well,” Stricker said. “This honors track that we are planning would include courses in psychology, sociology, anthropology — courses that generally fit into the humanities and social sciences areas — instead of focusing exclusively on the natural sciences.”

In addition, Stricker envisions beginning a summer biomedical science research program similar to the existing Brackenridge research fellowships in which undergraduates undertake research projects and present them to one another in weekly group discussions. The new program could be in place this summer, he said.

The popular Brackenridge program, which expanded last year into a year-round program, aims to have a mixture of students with interests in the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. However, because Pitt’s undergraduate population has a disproportionately large number of students interested in the biomedical sciences, a second research program for students in those areas of study would help preserve the Brackenridge program’s diversity, he said.

Stricker reiterated his desire to institute an “honors college scholar” certification to recognize undergraduate students who undertake some sort of in-depth project, yet don’t have the time or opportunity to pursue the more rigorous bachelor of philosophy degree, which requires writing and publicly defending a thesis.

Stricker, who became dean of the honors college in 2011, proposed in his two previous annual addresses similar recognition programs for students who exceed the University’s graduation requirements.

The new certification isn’t likely to be in place for 2014 graduates, but could be offered in the next academic year, he said.


In his address last week, delivered in the Frick Fine Arts auditorium, Stricker discussed six variables he believes are crucial for achieving excellence in education: honors courses; community; high standards and values; recognition for students’ achievements; faculty, and leadership.


“I don’t think you can talk about an excellent college education without including excellent courses,” Stricker said.

He said UHC assistant dean Gordon Mitchell will promote to faculty and department chairs UHC’s goal of boosting the number of honors courses that the University offers.

Currently 80-100 honors courses are taught at Pitt each year. Most are small seminars of 15-20 students, while a few are large introductory courses that enroll 50 or more students.

“These courses in general are designed to provide coverage of a subject in more depth,” he said. “They cover the same material, perhaps, but more broadly, with more critical evaluation, more access to primary literature. The students have to read more, they have to write more, they have to talk more in class. It’s a more demanding, more challenging environment,” the dean said.

Although the University encourages each major to offer some honors courses, “the distribution of these courses is not uniform,” he said, noting that some departments have several; others have none.

“The idea, the task, of offering honors courses is not as difficult as departments think it is when they first hear about it,” Stricker said.

Honors courses need not be completely different from what’s being offered already, he said.

Honors courses also could take the form of a supplement to a regular section of a course, rather than a stand-alone course. Or, he said, “other courses are de-facto honors courses but they aren’t listed like that,” noting that some existing advanced electives simply may need to be relabeled and listed as honors courses.


Community is another critical variable. “You don’t want just simply a collection of individuals each pursuing privately their own education. It’s easier and more effective to collect them in a community of such students.”

In such a community, students interact, learn from one another, motivate and inspire each other, Stricker said.

Other universities may create that community through honors program membership; Pitt, which has no formal honors college membership, uses other means such as the Brackenridge program or honors housing, in which students bond and form subcommunities, he said.


“I don’t think you could have a first-rate educational experience without there being high standards and values that are communicated and made explicit so that students know what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and why,” the dean said.

Among UHC’s goals is to promote academic attainment — “the product of the hard work, talent, discipline and motivation that is required to be successful in the classroom,” Stricker said.

The goal of getting A’s isn’t the right goal, he said. Given that a score of 85 or 90 percent may earn an A, “the bar is set too low,” he said.

“Who says 85 or 90 percent of the material is the goal to shoot for? If you’re a physician and you tell your patients ‘Don’t worry, I know 85 percent of the material,’ they’re not going to be reassured by that. And you’re not going to be reassured by that either, in thinking that’s all you know. You want to know everything.”

Someone interested in pursuing a subject seriously wants to know everything about it.  “You want to have mastered the material rather than be pretty good at it,” Stricker said. “Pretty good was okay for high school, but it is not okay anymore.”

Pursuing the idea of knowing everything isn’t hard. “I don’t know that you’ll ever get there, but you’ll come much closer than if you don’t know that that’s your goal,” he said. “Your goal is to do the best you can in whatever profession you choose. Mastering the material is the way to get there, rather than settling for an A.”

Another value in the honors college is promoting academic curiosity. “It is the feature of students and faculty alike: this desire to learn and understand everything that’s important to them. It leads not only to unusual depth of education but to unusual breadth of education. It is a very powerful, motivating force that pushes people to read more, ask more and delve more into material than you might otherwise, to satisfy somebody else’s requirements,” he said.

Yet another value promoted in the honors college is social consciousness, Stricker said. “We want students to recognize that they’re members of the community and their responsibility is to participate in the community and support its goals.”

Tutoring or doing research in the community are among the ways such responsibility can be manifested.

“It’s not enough to do well in school. Even if you master all the material, that’s wonderful but limited,” Stricker said. “Having mastered it, we would like you to understand that it’s appropriate to go out to the community and share the fruit of your labors and the enthusiasm you had in pursuing them.”

In addition to individual responsibility to serve in the community, UHC has a collective responsibility, he said.

Honors college contributions include support of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series as well as the American Experience lecture series and UHC-sponsored public talks on climate change, human evolution and other issues.


Another factor in promoting excellence in education “is to recognize students who actually do what you hoped they would do,” Stricker said.

Promoting such recognition was part of the impetus in last year’s launch of the G. Alec Stewart Student Achievement Award, named in memory of the late founding dean of the honors college. The awards recognize four third-year undergraduate students who best represent the UHC values academic attainment, intellectual curiosity and social consciousness.

Another UHC scholarship program has been established to provide $2,000 in tuition support to high-achieving undergraduates who did not receive scholarships because of their high school performance, transfer status or applying too late to be considered for other scholarship money. The program has funding sufficient to award 40-50 such scholarships, Stricker said.


“The quality of a school in general is measured not only in the quality of its students, but the quality of the faculty, the quality of the work they do, the research and scholarship and creativity in addition to the quality of the instruction and the mentoring they provide,” Stricker said.

“This education that faculty provide is not just in the classroom. They are in laboratories and studios and libraries — wherever the faculty work and wherever students choose to do their research and scholarship,” he said.

He said faculty also present public lectures on Friday afternoons in the honors college and interact in less formal ways through a “faculty coffeehouse.”

“It is true that the focus of the honors college is on the undergraduate students, but the undergraduate students need mentoring, they need assistance, they need nurturing in their development,” he said. “That’s part of what the faculty do. They guide the students and encourage them while at the same time educating them.”

In the same way that the honors college at Pitt has no formal student membership roll, it likewise has no faculty of its own. “We depend on the interest that faculty on this campus have, to see that the honors college has the same values that they do and that they want to align themselves with this community, participate in it and satisfy it,” Stricker said.

He acknowledged that some faculty members view themselves only as scholars within a narrow discipline and don’t want to spend time with undergraduates. But, “there are more faculty who don’t agree with that — who see themselves as educators who are drawn to a college or university because they have the opportunity not only to pursue their own research and scholarship, but to educate,” Stricker said.


Stricker said the preceding variables don’t arise spontaneously, but are the consequence of planning, judgment, appropriate use of resources and opportunities, assessment of outcomes and taking action based on evidence.

“All of those are part of the job description of department chairs, center directors, deans, the provost and chancellor,” Stricker said.

“Whatever else they do in specific, in general they do all of these other things as well. … All of them are supported by a group of assistants and associates who join in accomplishing this leadership task.”

Stricker’s leadership in the honors college itself is aided by academic assistant Peter Koehler, a former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and assistant dean Mitchell.


In closing, Stricker reiterated the importance of courses, community, standards and values, recognition, faculty and leadership as factors in achieving excellence in education.

“Embedded in what I said are the values we expect of honors students: academic attainment, intellectual curiosity and social consciousness. They are the values we expect of ourselves, including our responsibility to educate future generations of Americans, and also the opportunity to provide this excellent education to all undergraduate students who want it,” he said.

“It’s my personal mission as dean of the honors college to highlight these values while maintaining the signature programs of the honors college and developing other programs which are consistent in terms of their general goals.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow