Students of all ages practice lifelong learning at Stanford Continuing Studies

(Originally published by Stanford News Service)

College students counting the days until graduation could take a lesson from the hundreds of students who have signed up for Stanford physics Professor Leonard Susskind’s modern physics classes taught through Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program (CSP), Stanford’s own adult education program.

The classes require proficiency in calculus and cover topics that would make most scholars scratch their heads. But Susskind’s CSP students do not tackle his advanced theories and mind-bending problem sets in pursuit of master’s degrees or PhDs. They sign up simply because they love to learn.

Susskind’s students and thousands of others with a passion for lifelong learning flock to campus and in some cases log in from distant locations to take courses from Stanford scholars and others who are top experts in their fields.

Registration for autumn 2011 CSP courses begins Monday, Aug. 22, at 8:30 a.m.

This fall’s lineup includes “The Past, Present, and Future of Design,” taught by Barry Katz, consulting professor of mechanical engineering;  “How to Think Like a Psychologist,” to be team-taught by nine psychology professors; and “The Golden Age: Great Hollywood Actors and Their Signature Films,” taught by San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle.

Nine faculty members from the School of Medicine will also present “The Heart: A Stanford Mini Med School Sequel,” as a single-quarter follow-up to the hugely popular 2009-10 Mini Med School.

In addition, the department will reprise Stanford Saturday University on Nov. 5 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Participants will have an opportunity to attend three out of six different classes, with topics including “Water: Is it the New Oil?” “Are We Rome or Greece?” and “What Are the Keys to Harmonizing People and Nature?” Saturday University is Continuing Studies’ effort to engage not only regular students, but also those who live too far away to attend regular classes, or those looking to try out the program. The cost of the one-day course is $150.

For regular CSP courses students must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma. Prices for courses range from  $200 – $750, though eligible university employees may use Staff Tuition Assistance Program (STAP) funds for these classes.

Employees at Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital may use their Educational Assistance Tuition Reimbursement funds. Stanford Alumni Association members, senior citizens and classroom teachers may be eligible for discounts.

Founded in 1988, the program aims to encourage and foster lifelong learning for the Peninsula and greater Bay Area community. Dan Colman, CSP’s associate dean and director, said Continuing Studies courses are geared more toward personal enrichment than career- or job-related skills.

“You might be coding at Google and you can come and read Jane Austen at night,” Colman said. “Maybe in some way this will influence what you’re doing at work. But it’s more about giving people the opportunity to pursue intellectual passions and to cultivate other sides of their lives so life isn’t just about work.”

Courses cover a wide variety of liberal arts, creative writing, business and personal and professional development topics. Except for several online writing courses, which are conducted online to encourage participation from all over the world, most CSP classes are held on campus at night and on the weekend.

Marsh McCall, classics professor emeritus and founding dean of Continuing Studies, said the program was inspired by the adult education programs already in existence at most other major universities at the time. The first term had six or seven courses and 200 registered students, and the program did not have universal support.

“There was some outright opposition,” McCall said. “[Some said] it would dilute the Stanford educational product. A number said we were giving away Stanford education and faculty.”

McCall credited Charles Junkerman, associate provost and dean of Continuing Studies, who took over in 1999, with making the program a success. He described Junkerman as “wonderful, innovative and imaginative.” Currently, 12,000 students register for the 350-400 CSP courses offered each year.

“From the start, Stanford Continuing Studies has put out a high-quality product that is wonderfully taught,” McCall said. “People have responded year after year by signing up and taking part in the program.”

What sets Stanford apart from other adult education programs in the area is its commitment to hiring tenured Stanford faculty whenever possible, McCall said.

Colman and Assistant Director Elana Hornstein agreed that the program’s most valuable asset is the access students get to world-renowned scholars and experts.

“It is often the faculty and the professors who teach for us who drive enrollment,” Colman said. “They just have such a pull. For some instructors it doesn’t matter what they teach, students are going to come just because they know the instructor is so dynamic, they’ll learn anything from that person.”

While many adult education programs are geared toward retirees and seniors, CSP students represent all ages and occupations. The average student is 46, and almost all have bachelor’s degrees; 60 percent have master’s degrees and 20 percent have PhDs or MDs.

“It’s a really educated bunch, and it’s great because it means our faculty can delve into complicated issues and have rich conversations in the classrooms,” Hornstein said.

Sara Wykes, a writer in the Stanford Hospital & Clinics communications office, is a frequent student in Continuing Studies. She took part in the Mini Med School series and said she enjoyed getting to know the world-renowned faculty and physicians, many of whom do not lecture publicly.

“Not only was it truly engaging, but for me as a medical writer at the hospital it was hugely useful; I learned so much in a relatively short period of time,” Wykes said.

Wykes has taken courses in a variety of subjects, including many not directly related to her job as a medical writer.

“The choices are so broad and eclectic that I could easily take half a dozen every quarter,” she said.

McCall said he’s taught Continuing Studies courses nearly every year (he’ll be teaching a course on Virgil’s Aeneid in the fall) and always enjoys it.

“They are virtually all busy adults, and they could be doing any number of things and they choose to come to your class,” McCall said. “You start off with such goodwill from the students, enthusiasm and energy. What else could a teacher ask for?”

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