By Physics Professor Derin Sherman

I believe that the purpose of college is to give students the experiences they need to succeed in the real world. Cornell College’s academic calendar is ideally suited to this task because it allows students to engage in more real-life experiences than they could under the semester system.

For example, students taking the advanced physics lab capstone course (PHY 312) spend the entire block researching a physics topic of their own choosing. They plan, design, construct, and carry out their own experiments. The work they do in this course closely mirrors actual research lab experiences. Students who go on to work in research labs, either in graduate school or industry, find the PHY 312 lab good preparation.

I’m always delighted by the degree of persistence and self-motivation shown by the students taking this course. Although it’s well-known that the One Course At A Time calendar mostly prevents students from procrastinating in their studies, One Course also motivates people to do academic work for its own sake. That’s because it gives students the time to dig down deep and really learn about a topic—to find out what’s exciting and interesting—and then permits the students to go beyond the boundaries of the original assignment. In the advanced lab, students will sometimes achieve major experimental breakthroughs within the first week, and rather than stopping to rest on their laurels, they push farther, trying to go past their original goals.

Students also find the advanced lab course to be fun. They often want to continue working on their projects at the end of the course, and some of them do. For me, this is one of the great pleasures of teaching under One Course At A Time: students who want to learn more—to go beyond the limits of the course—have the time and opportunity to do so. When they take one of my classes, they know that I’m teaching only their class, so they feel free to come to me with their own questions that might be only tangentially related to the course. And their questions lead to great places: they can spawn engaging class discussions, and they can also lead to independent research projects.

The late MIT professor Harold Edgerton once said, “The trick to education is to not let them know that they’re learning something until it’s too late.” And that’s part of the secret to the One Course curriculum: students know when they sign up for a class that they’ll be learning something, but when the class starts, they usually don’t know that they’ll be learning how to love learning until it’s too late.