Quest University opened with a vision to provide a different kind of undergraduate education that engages students and prepares them for a world where problems are solved across disciplines and through collaboration.
Six years later and with two graduating classes under its belt, the post-secondary institution is living up to that mandate by ranking No. 1 in North America for student engagement, and it hopes as it continues to expand over the next few years that it can also improve upon its engagement of the Sea to Sky community as well.
President David Helfand welcomed prospective students and their parents onto the campus for a Preview Day on Saturday (March 9) to give them a taste of the Quest experience.
Remarking on the rankings, which were released just a few days before, Helfand said the focus of the program, which uses an unconventional block system, is to increase the level of engagement and depth of learning students experience as part of their education — and it is obviously working.
“So we have data that suggests that we have managed to create a uniquely engaging and enriching experience for students,” he said.
The 2012 National Survey of Student Engagement, released last Wednesday (March 6), ranked Quest at the top of the list for educational excellence across Canada. The survey asks students in their first and senior years specific questions about the quality and nature of their undergraduate experience and compares the results across Canada and North America.
It measures: active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interactions, the level of academic challenge students face, the number and quality of enriching educational experiences, and the supportiveness of the campus environment. At Quest, 92 per cent ranked their educational experience as excellent and eight per cent as good.
Helfand explained the undergraduate degree in arts and sciences challenges students in the first two years to study the range of intellectual subjects available to them, before opening up their schedules to individual choice.
“The first two years it is important they are exposed in serious ways to the different approaches different disciplines take to the world,” he said. “We want students to be equipped with intellectual tools to approach problems from a myriad of perspectives.”
The final two years involves each student undertaking a final project in which they ask a single question and approach it through an interdisciplinary analysis that involves leaving campus and doing experiential learning.
The block system used at Quest challenges students to take one course at a time and focus entirely on that subject for a month. Each semester has students taking four courses in a sequential order, which is quite different from the traditional university teaching model.
The development of Quest by former University of B.C. president David Strangway allowed the rare opportunity to define a different type of university, Helfand said, and one designed for the 21st century with complex problems that cannot be solved in disciplinary silos.
While it opened in the fall of 2007 with 73 students and six and a half faculty, Quest is looking to start the 2013-14 academic year with a student body of 510.
When it was originally built the academic building and library were designed to accommodate 640 students. Helfand said within the next few years he expects the campus to reach that limit and added there is more land to develop to reach a student body of 1,500 in the future. The university is non-profit and accepts absolutely no money from any level of government, however, tuition is $29,000 a year and does not include the $9,500 for room and board. All students live on campus throughout the degree, allowing them to be fully engaged in their education.
Right now the university is in the process of building a new residence for students and expects to build another one next year as well.
Helfand said the university has tried since it opened to engage in the community, but it has been a slow process and one that he hopes improves into the future.
“Certainly it is better than it was five years ago,” he said. “If you asked a random person on the street what was going on up here, they would have no clue and they would give you a very distorted picture.
“So it is definitely getting better — we have much more of our students going out and volunteering with organizations in the community.”
Helfand added that Quest has weekly events on campus that are open and free to the public to attend, as well as monthly lectures at both the Whistler and Squamish public libraries. In April, the top six final keystone projects students complete for their degree will be presented on campus, and the community is also invited to attend as well.