A new way of thinking and of doing business is thriving at University of North Texas (UNT) at Frisco.
Project-based learning for a cohort-based degree plan is the new three-year UNT program that allows students to have an integrated education experience in collaboration with professional partners, such as the City of Frisco, Amerisource Bergen, LogistiCorp, Toyota, Protiviti and nThrive.
Zain Ali, clinical professor and director of Project Based Cohort Learning at UNT, says this program is built around the vision of UNT President Neil Smatresk to improve student engagement by linking what students learn in classes to real life, as well ensuring that students are "robot proof."
The program offers a new bachelor's degree in Project Design and Analysis where all classes revolve around a real business problem provided by one of the initiative's professional partners to match students with real-life business learning situations. Designed with students in mind, Zain says this degree provides students with the ability to confidently face the evolving tide of industry and societal needs with the competencies that employers want upon graduation. With concentrations in project management, creative design and business analysis, graduates enter the job market with highly sought-after skills, he adds.
Zain says there are 21 students in cohort 1, which started in Fall 2019. He says they already have most of the students planned for cohort 2, which will start in fall of 2020.
One cohort student, David Green, says the approach is absolutely incredible. "I'm learning about Frisco, and the city's real needs. The interactive experience is phenomenal," he adds.
David says the UNT professors are super supportive of any questions he ever has. "This program has been an absolute delight to be a part of," he concludes.
Another student in the program, Preston Showers, says it's been an awesome experience, including learning how to better compose himself. "The professors help us set up activities at companies. It's (the program) definitely been the right decision for me," he adds.
Dr. Hope Garcia is UNT assistant vice president of student services, and she also serves as one of the cohort program's faculty members. She says it was important to combine innovative ways for participating students to get their core content from their classes while simultaneously learning actual skills that will help them personally and professionally develop.
"At a lot of colleges, students are expected to go find those skills on their own and on their own time," she explains. "We wanted to integrate all those skills in the same program."
Dr. Krisstal Clayton, clinical associate professor of psychology and psychology program coordinator at UNT Frisco, helped assemble the curriculum plan for this new program. "We combined our classes and disciplines to give students one unique learning experience, and it's been really great to watch students change," she says.
Dr. Shari Childers, director of core programming for regional campuses with the UNT English department, reminds that one of the other fantastic components of the cohort program is that it allows UNT students to save money by getting their degree in three years. She says the internships included in the program give real-world industry experience while also enabling students to develop professional connections that can be valuable openings for future jobs.
Joanna Jesudhasan, another student in the program, says she was excited about the small class size, and shares that she already knew that the project-based approach was how she learned best. "We also get to learn skills such as teamwork and leadership. Being in the program definitely has gone above and beyond my expectations," she says.
The students worked with Frisco city personnel as their first client through two projects pertaining to transportation and micromobility. "We've had the opportunity to see this program's students progress and craft their profession. They've gotten a wonderful opportunity that I wish I'd had when I was a student," agrees Brian Moen, assistant transportation director for Frisco.
Brian says the information the students have provided to city staffers has been valuable. "They give us some good, fresh perspectives about public transportation and micromobility. They dig into details that we as a staff don't always have time to do," he adds.
He says he looks forward to continuing this UNT Frisco partnership. "We learn as a staff how this process can work, and the things we can benefit from by having the focus of the students," he says.
Brian encourages the cohort students to keep up their good work, because "we're never too old to learn and things are always changing."