MiddCORE takes liberal arts out of the classroom

MIDDLEBURY — MiddCORE isn’t a typical college class. It’s not a science, math, economics, business or English class — though students may use skills learned from such classes. And it requires a time commitment larger than an average full-time job.
Instead, the Middlebury College January term class that this year drew in 32 students from 21 different fields is summed up by the CORE acronym: Creativity, Opportunity, Risk and Entrepreneurship.
On Tuesday, some of the students were out of the classroom on their first challenge, where they were tasked to brainstorm ways for independent bookstores to adapt to the digital age, in partnership with the Vermont Book Shop.
“This is a real issue of the day,” said MiddCORE director Jessica Holmes, a professor of economics at the college.
In the meantime, the other section of the class was brainstorming a spring event that would bring people to Middlebury. The judges, consultant Greg Dennis, Better Middlebury Partnership Marketing Director EJ Bartlett and BMP President Donna Donahue, picked Mudapalooza as the best idea among those that sprung up. It would be a celebration of the spring mud season that would include mud baths, mud pies for children and local music performances. Bartlett said she’s hoping some of the students will be inspired to collaborate with the BMP and organize the events that they imagined.
“They only had an hour to do it, and they came up with some really great ideas,” she said.
Tuesday’s challenges comprised the first ones in a series of group and individual challenges that students will tackle in a month of intensive classes that run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and during some dinners. The students are committed to put in long hours this winter while many other students are getting off campus to ski or exploring other disciplines through J-term workshops.
Other challenges will include managing a simulated crisis at a Cadbury chocolate factory (led by a former CIA officer), holding press conferences with journalist and author Stephen Kiernan and former Gov. James Douglas, and creating a communications and publicity strategy for the BMP in collaboration with Bartlett. All told, 50 guest mentors will offer advice and class challenges throughout the four weeks of the class.
“The structure turns the classroom upside down,” said Catherine Collins, a former MiddCORE student who now serves as a research associate for the program.
To Collins, the class takes the more theoretical concepts of traditional classroom learning and applies it to the real world.
“These are theoretical, big-picture problems that go outside of the classroom,” she said.
Holmes said students build leadership, strategic-thinking and conflict management skills, and they draw heavily on their creativity, critical thinking, resourcefulness and communication talents.
And it’s not just the students who learn from the challenges and from the body of knowledge that the mentors bring in. Holmes said she has learned all sorts of new things as well since she began working with the MiddCORE program.
“This is the class I wish I had taken in college,” she said.
This year marks an expansion of the class from 16 students to 32, and Holmes has brought on Peter Hamlin, chair of the college’s music department, to lead the second section.
Collins is working to coordinate MiddCORE Plus, an eight-week summer internship program for students who have already taken the class. The class will pair a student and a mentor to work intensively on a summer project; the BMP has already agreed to host an intern.
“We always talk about trying to keep talent in Vermont. I think this is a way to do that,” Bartlett said. “(Through MiddCORE), entrepreneurial students find things that they can make grow right in their backyard.”
Next January, the program will take an even bigger leap, and expand even further to the Monterey Institute in California, where Middlebury students will have the opportunity to take the class with Monterey graduate students.
Founded four years ago by now-retired professor of economics Michael Claudon, MiddCORE is garnering attention outside the Middlebury area. Other schools interested in starting their own MiddCORE-type courses have been contacting Holmes for advice.
“We’re on the forefront of this movement in liberal arts education,” said Holmes.
She said the class is perfectly suited to a liberal arts institution, as the challenges require students to draw on their own areas of expertise, to collaborate with classmates in different fields of study, and to use their critical thinking skills and creativity.
That’s a focus that Holmes said is becoming and more important to Middlebury College, as well as other similar institutions.
“The college is at a place where we’re really thinking about liberal arts for the 21st century,” she said.
In just a few weeks, the class will fall under the umbrella of the college’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, designed to support student entrepreneurs through grants, lectures and training workshops. The center will launch late this month.
But, said Holmes, despite the fast growth of MiddCORE and related efforts, the heart of the program will always be the winter course.
“It works well in J-term,” said Holmes. “There’s an intensity to it that we couldn’t have during the fall or spring semesters, and it’s got to be intense.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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