First Step

Transforming Beginning Academic Requirements into Discovery-based Courses

Imagine signing up for your beginning requirements at Cal as a first-year student—and then having the opportunity to create an award-winning film, or visit an Italian restaurant and conduct an interview in Italian, or create groundbreaking research that helps bring to light untold stories of American history, or work together to define new uses for AI. Imagine not only learning the academic skills you need to succeed at Cal—but also discovering your future pathway. All of these exciting opportunities and more are happening as a result of the First Step Discovery Project. In the words of one of our Discovery faculty: Discovery empowers students. 

The First Step

The First Step Discovery Journey transforms Berkeley’s beginning courses in Reading and Composition (R&C) and in Foreign Languages from skills-based requirements to gateway inquiry-based seminars connecting first- and second-year students with the best and most exciting resources of the university. Over the past three years, the project has led First Step seminars for 40 faculty from 22 different departments and programs. The resulting Discovery classes have reached over 2500 students. These First Step classes are transformative, embedding inquiry into their pedagogy, integrating primary sources into the curriculum, structuring collaborative and creative projects into each course, and providing experiential learning opportunities, connecting students to Discovery pathways that lead outside the classroom.

Student Voices

Student voices from the First Step project help us to see this transformative change most clearly. First Step Discovery brings the classroom to life.

“Simply reading or listening to material on a subject is analogous to skimming 2D cartoons, while experiencing a topic and seeing it in action is like watching a 3D movie.”

“After taking this course, I realized how ALIVE Korean is and I feel committed to learning Korean even after graduation. I am already looking for an adult Korean class in New York where I will start working.”

In First Step Discovery, students feel that their work can make a difference, as in these descriptions of capstone projects from a Discovery R&C class:

For my capstone project, I generated a description of my artwork using AI, fed it into an AI image generator, and then generated another description based on the result. Using this method of AI Art ‘Telestrations’, I developed a loop in which AI feeds on itself, enabling me to observe and critique how AI generated content evolves.
Discovery Student
I explored the history of deaf activism at UC Berkeley to showcase the importance of accessibility and inclusion. Using a multimodal format, I also relied on the film Crip Camp and my own experiences learning ASL on campus as primary source material to explore the positive impact of creating an inclusive environment.
Discovery Student

Redefining Research

In First Step courses, students learn that research can become a creative investigation fueled by their own curiosity.  A survey of students in First Step courses  reveals that while at the beginning of the semester, nearly all the students felt that research was a teacher-defined assignment, like “doing a 15 page paper, like in high school,” by the end of the semester, they saw that research is a process, an inquiry-based journey exploring a genuine question they raise themselves.  In addition, a further survey reveals significant qualitative results from First Step classes: students have a greater sense of “belonging” at Cal, and they have more confidence in their ability to work in groups, their capacity to consider variety of opinions and approaches, and their ability to communicate their work effectively to an audience.

First Step Discovery projects can also enrich our shared knowledge on campus, like this film created for a Discovery class that gives us an unforgettable picture of the character of one corner of rural California:

The project’s larger impact on campus can also be seen in prizes awarded to student work.  Miya Rosenthal’s Discovery film was awarded the Creative Project Prize from A Year on Angel Island Project: