With honors courses, RCBC aims to better teach - and attract - top students

Rowan College at Burlington County is experimenting with the creation of an honors program, offering higher-level courses that could attract top academic talent and boost students' applications when transferring to four-year colleges.

The Burlington County community college will begin with four courses this fall, the first step toward creation of an honors program that could help with student recruitment during a time of change for community colleges.

The courses, each with one 20-student section, will be General Chemistry I, Calculus I and Analytic Geometry, Composition II, and U.S. History I. Students with a minimum grade-point average of 3.2 can apply to take the courses, which will dive more deeply into content and be taught in more interactive ways.

"I'm going to move a little bit faster through the typical course material, and I'll be able to go a little bit deeper into the examples," said Laura Stewart, a chemistry instructor who chaired the faculty committee that has been working on the honors courses.

Within a year or two, RCBC president Paul Drayton said, he hopes to create a full honors program within the college. At several other New Jersey community colleges, including Camden County College, Raritan Valley Community College, and Brookdale Community College, honors programs include a full set of courses and additional extracurricular requirements.

Rowan College at Gloucester County, the community college formerly known as Gloucester County College, also is preparing to offer some honors courses this fall.

Community colleges have long been an affordable entry point into higher education, and programs such as the NJ STARS program for top high school graduates have encouraged students to attend two-year schools before transferring to a bachelor's program. Honors programs are particularly attractive to those students, college officials said.

"The real benefit is not just that I took three, four, five honors courses - that's great, and I did really well and that's on my transcript . . . but it's even more important," Drayton said, "if they can say, 'I graduated from an honors program.'"

Soon after the fall semester begins, Stewart said, the college will evaluate student and faculty demand for the four honors courses and plan the spring semester.

Justin Ryan, 26, a chemical engineering student from Eastampton who is graduating this spring, said he "unfortunately" did not have the honors chemistry option but could see its appeal.

The general chemistry courses - five dozen students in a lecture hall - have engaged, interested science majors like Ryan and what he described as "students who had to take a science course because it's required."

That mix means some students are bored, some students are lost, and dozens are somewhere in between.

"That's always the case. So the course sometimes gets slowed down a bit for these students who aren't as prepared or as familiar with the material," Ryan said.

When Stewart teaches the honors General Chemistry I course this fall, she said, the content would be deeper but she also would teach differently: more student-driven activities, more work in small groups, more problem-solving assignments.

That's the kind of approach Ryan saw when he took more advanced chemistry courses.

"It was a bit better going from an environment where not everybody cares, and a good chunk of people aren't paying attention, to an environment where most of the class knows what's going on," he said. "So there's more of an active discussion, you can learn not just from the teacher but kind of learn from other people around, who are also trying to figure out the same thing."

Offering the honors courses also could benefit students in the traditional courses, said Terrence Sherlock, a chemistry professor at RCBC for 15 years.

"A smaller class of students who feel more homogeneous, so to speak, they're more likely to be less intimidated by the students who know all the answers right away," Sherlock said. "So it's a win-win for both sides."Creation of an honors program also would be a win for the college, its president said, because it could help with recruitment and enrollment.

"If we're providing this level of academic excellence, it puts us in a position where we're able to recruit the top students," Drayton said.

"You give those students an opportunity and a pathway to honors programs, honors courses, I think it helps us . . . from a recruiting standpoint and from a competitive standpoint."

[Original Article]