Freshman seminar numbers to rise

BY ANNA LOTHSON | APRIL 23, 2009 7:29 AM

Seeing the secret life of a surgeon, learning intricacies of a courtroom, crunching a university budget, or picking at the brain of an engineer — they all have one thing in common.

Each will be the focus of a freshman seminar offered at the UI this fall.

Adding these courses will create a lasting connection, encouraging students to stay for their entire undergraduate career, UI officials say.

“If students feel they can connect to an institution, they can thrive and succeed,” said UI Provost Wallace Loh, who will teach a seminar on law and social justice. “We can shrink the psychological size of the university,” making freshmen feel less intimidated.

And without heavy textbooks or the rigor of a typical class, the seminars’ perks are built right in — including interactive learning.

Having just 18-20 students, the classes offer an engaging experience while creating social connections among peers and top university administrators.

Loh said he has been getting an influx of faculty eager to volunteer to teach these courses, including experts stemming from fields in medicine, economics, finance, psychology, energy, among others.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” he said, noting students will be exposed to experiences otherwise often impossible to witness.

Helena Dettmer, associate dean for undergraduate programs and curriculum, said data have shown engaging new students is critical in retention.

“It provides an opportunity to see faculty research,” she said.

While the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences introduced the freshman seminars in 1997, the slowly growing trend will get a significant boost next year.

Offered to roughly 20 percent of freshmen currently, Loh said he thinks the UI is “lagging behind” in offering seminars. He said he hopes to see the program expanded to at least 50 percent of freshmen next fall, and 100 percent the following year.

Currently, there are around 40 seminars offered, but under Loh’s vision, this would grow to roughly 200 by 2010.

Expanding these courses — which will be taught by tenured faculty— often sparks new interests students might otherwise overlook, said Kathryn Hall, UI assistant to the associate deans in the College of Liberal Arts in Sciences.

“Faculty behind a podium seem far away,” she said, and the up close and personal quality should be intriguing.

Excited about teaching a course on managing finances, Senior Vice President for Finance Doug True said these are “enriching programs.”

By allowing freshmen to partake in complex subjects in a simpler way will not only generate new interests but allow students to learn by example, True said.

“By looking, by seeing, by asking questions, it’s great innovation,” he said. “It creates contact with people we are here to serve.”

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