More Than Just Offering Degree, School Focuses On Life Plans

By Karen Herzog
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


It is perhaps the least understood school on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

And yet it aims to be the hub of problem-solving for some of the most basic issues of life — how to mindfully raise a child, how to design products and spaces that make sense, how to chart a path to financial self-sufficiency so college students don’t end up living in their parents’ basement after graduation.

The School of Human Ecology, housed in one of the sleekest, most ecofriendly buildings on campus,offers undergraduate majors in consumer affairs, personal finance, retailing, interior architecture (formerly interior design), textile and apparel design, community and nonprofit leadership, and human development and family studies.

It also has several graduate programs.

The careers are familiar fields, but the school is working to reposition itself as turning out graduates with both practical skills and the so-called soft skills of critical thinking, problem-solving and cross-discipline teamwork that employers say they want.

If that sounds vague, Soyeon Shim, dean of the school since 2012, suggests using Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers, as a model for understanding what human ecology is all about.

Jobs’ genius was that he first focused on what would be intuitive and user-friendly for consumers, what would help them manage their daily life, what would appeal to them — aesthetically and practically — and only then did he bring to life products that consumers didn’t even realize they wanted until they saw them.

“Design thinking and innovation go hand-in-hand,” Shim said. “Think users first, and then prototype. It’s a problem-based approach as opposed to teaching science.”

Shim understands that the very name of the school may confuse people.

“Human ecology is a name ahead of its time,” she said. “It’s the study of the interaction between humans and environment to enhance quality of life. It’s things you care about, day to day — good parenting, good nutrition, good exercise, good financial habits, good environment — all of the things that make us happy. When we accomplish what we set out to do, people will see we’re the hub of science that truly puts humans — family, children and communities — front and center.”

How does that translate to the classroom?

Students in a new “Global Artisans: Design and Sustainability” are working with artisans in Ecuador, Mexico and Kenya to help them design high-end products such as jewelry, bags and accessories so the artisans in remote villages can earn money for education, health care and food.

Taught by design professors Jennifer Angus and Carolyn Kallenborn and Consumer Science faculty associate Dee Warmath, the course connects students with artisans who may not have running water but do have Wi-Fi that allows them to Skype and exchange email.

While design students work on the look and feel of the products, students in consumer science will develop business plans so the artisans can sell their products at a physical “shop” in the School of Human Ecology and via an online store.

“Generally in life, design is a team process,” said professor of design studies Mark Nelson, as he coached about a dozen senior interior architecture students in a studio classroom.

“Before, we were narrowly focused on skills,” Nelson said of the school. “Now the school is based on problem-solving and interpersonal relationships. … We’re educating people not for their first job, but for their last job, so they have skills to learn throughout their lives.”

The school has existed at UW-Madison in various incarnations for more than 100 years. It was born in 1904 as the Department of Domestic Science in the College of Letters and Science — a home economics gateway to higher education for women.

It evolved into the interdisciplinary School of Human Ecology in 1997.

“What we emphasize is quality of life — putting science in practice to improve life,” explains Shim, who is preparing to launch a $50 million private fundraising campaign for a school endowment.

A $52.95 million state-of-the-art addition and renovation completed in 2012 put all of the school’s varied disciplines under one large roof: Nancy Nicholas Hall, the first all-academic building on campus named in honor of a woman.

A Preschool Laboratory for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years benefits parents but also provides research opportunities for faculty and students. A stunning third-floor Rooftop Terrace overlooks the children’s discovery garden.

Nature literally calls on the first floor; the sounds of birds, thunder, rain and trees whistling in the wind greet users when they enter the whimsical first-floor restrooms.

A wood stump props up a pebble-infused counter and river rock is embedded in the floor. The crowning glory is the ceiling, where hundreds of tiny fiber optic points are nestled against a midnight blue sky.

“There is tremendous value for people to learn and work in spaces that are intriguing and to create an inviting space for the campus and greater community,” Linda Zwicker, the school’s assistant dean, said in explaining the philosophy of the building’s unique design.

Wisconsin-based companies have invested in the school.

Kohl’s Department Stores donated $3 million in 2008 to establish a center for retailing excellence in the building with interview rooms that have cameras for in-person and distant student interviews with potential employers or internship sponsors.

Shim’s personal story infuses her professional vision. At the age of 25, she emigrated from Korea — with two suitcases in hand –on a scholarship to earn her doctorate at the University of Tennessee.

She battled homesickness and struggled to understand Southern English. But she overcame her difficulties in part, she said, because she had made the choice to come here — it was part of a plan she had designed.

She’s passed on those principles to her family and her students.

Shim and her husband agreed that even though they could afford to send their daughter to the University of Chicago, they wanted to teach her financial responsibility by having her pay 20% of the cost. Shim refers to it as experiential learning.

The Shims instructed their daughter to research different types of loans, then come back and tell them which one made the most sense. They also asked her to analyze three different credit card offers, tell them which one she thought was best after reading the fine print, and apply for one.

They scheduled a Financial Night at the end of each academic quarter. That’s when she was expected to present her financial picture and budget for the next quarter, and to have mapped out her plans for the summer.

“It was looking at her life management as opposed to money,” Shim said.

Now 25, Shim’s daughter works in supply-chain management in Chicago. She has a five-year plan to pay off her $60,000 student loan debt, and she lives frugally — or as Shim describes it, she shapes her social life so she can pay off her debt.

Following the same idea, the school launched a course this semester to teach financial life skills, inspired in part by findings of a study following young adults from their college years to workforce, which Shim led while at the University of Arizona.

That study found 50% of the more than 1,000 participants continued to rely on their family for financial support after finishing school.

Financial instability is delaying normal development of young adults and their ability to achieve financial goals, Shim concluded.

What used to take four years to accomplish now takes 10, as many recent college grads are struggling to pay off student loan debt, start a family or buy a car and home in their mid-20s, Shim said.

“A college education needs to be much more than an education. The timing of it is so essential. You only have one window of opportunity to develop habits,” she said. “We can no longer say our job is to give them a degree. There has to be balance to translate it into an opportunity.”

The new financial life skills course within the school’s consumer science department was developed with funding from the UW Credit Union.

The course covers emotions and money, strategic spending plans and budgeting, reasonable credit card and student loan debt, building savings, informed signing of apartment leases and paying taxes, among other topics.

Another class in the school, designed by professors from six disciplines, will explore why it’s important to complete college on time, and delve into financial management and romantic relationships.

“It’s empowering them to think about designing their life,” Shim said. “We talk too much about disciplines, degrees and getting a job, not a holistic design for your life…We often focus on outcomes but ignore the process.”

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