UF Quest redefines the student learning experience 

A student sitting in a classroom surrounded by classmates.

How can I become a more empathetic friend, partner and colleague? What can I do to address injustices I face in my everyday life? What are the unintended consequences of my actions? 

Students at the University of Florida pursue the answers to these questions through the undergraduate general education curriculum called UF Quest. Classes like “What is Madness?” and “Water into Land” fit into students’ degree programs and equip them with tools on how to answer big questions.

“This new general education program provides students the opportunity to take innovative courses from the best UF faculty in their very first year,” said Andrew Wolpert, Director of UF Quest. 

These courses give students the tools on how to find the answers through four quests, starting with asking essential questions from the humanities then addressing current issues through natural and social sciences. The third quest sends students outside the classroom for experiences like research, internships or studying abroad, finally leading into the senior capstone.

Richard Wang teaches Quest class “East Asian Martial Arts Classics” alongside assistant professor Matthieu Felt. Their combined specialties in classical Chinese and Japanese culture meld together to help students understand imbalances in power by looking at how stories depicted the struggles against corruption in power through martial artists. 

“It is only wishful thinking to see law as justice for everything, and this was the biggest problem for not only China, but in Japan, South Korea and across East Asia,” Wang said. “But that’s why martial arts literary works were so popular and why you can see iterations of it today.”

Riley Mixon, one of Wang’s students, was initially interested in the class because she did taekwondo as a kid. But the class also fits perfectly into her theatre major, because it looks at how art and performance influence people and how people influence art and performance. 

“The class isn’t just a Chinese, Japanese or Korean history class,” the sophomore said. “It really gives a contextual layer to how society does repeat itself in different ways and teaches us how to observe past struggles and see how those dynamics are applicable today.”

Several classes in the first quest approach problems the world faces today through history around the world. In Nancy Hunt’s “What is Madness?” students take a transatlantic look at how mental illness has been labelled and treated and how it has been gendered and racialized.

“Mental health comes up in every family, every life, every dorm room,” Hunt said. “These are some very old issues in human history, but they are able to get a critical stance on history and psychiatry.”

Quest classes are designed for students to explore these ideas one-on-one with their professor and peers in conversations that may be tough. And students can choose from a wide range of classes that address any given tough question.  

For Steven Noll, these tough questions look at how good choices for some people might be disastrous for others.

Students come to his class “Water into Land, Land into Water” as people who love the beach, the springs, the lake nearby, and he wants them to leave the class knowing these treasured features don’t exist in isolation. The natural environment, specifically Florida’s environment in his class, is largely shaped by human choices. 

Florida’s history, geography and politics tell a story that can give clues to the next generation on how their actions will interact with their environments. Noll’s student Samantha Hsu chose his class because as a biotechnology major, she wanted to be able to explore something she was interested — the environment — through a historical lens. 

“History helps us to see the patterns of humans and see changing or stagnant ideas and perspectives in relation to the environment,” she said. 

“Water into Land, Land into Water” incorporates fiction and nonfiction stories that show resilience in the face of natural disasters with an analysis of  archival materials, plus Noll ensures students are equipped to find factual information online.”

“Most people today are not getting their information from newspapers or libraries, but off the web,” he said. “It’s important to build critical thinking.”

Through classes like these, Director of UF Quest Andrew Wolpert said he hopes students gain a greater sense of themselves and their place in the world. 

“Quest courses are not simply an introduction to a discipline,” he said. “They explore big ideas, big questions and big problems to spark student creativity and imagination.”

Emily Cardinali February 28, 2020