U offers smaller class sizes in seminars

Freshman seminars are a way for new students to get to know professors.

Lacey Crisp

How likely is extraterrestrial life?

That’s what some students in Woods Halley’s freshman seminar on extraterrestrial life wonder.

“I had one guy a few years back, saying (he) thought this was going to be ‘X-Files: The Course,’ ” Halley, a physics and astronomy professor, said.

Halley teaches one of 49 freshman seminars the University offers this year. Classes vary in topic from business to extraterrestrial life.

Freshman seminars are a way for new students to learn about a topic, get to know a professor one-on-one and get credit for doing it.

The University tested out the idea of freshman seminars in 1998, and in 1999 they decided to keep the program.

Carlson School of Management professor Andrew Whitman has taught six freshman seminars. He said he looks forward to them every semester, and asks to teach them.

“Teaching seminars provide an opportunity for me to present to freshmen basic concepts in risky decision-making that are part of my regular classes in the upper divisions,” Whitman, who specializes in risk assessment for businesses, said.

Whitman said he has guest lecturers almost every week and tries to have lively discussions every class. He said freshman seminars can be a lot of fun to teach, but also a lot of work.

“I’m always excited to teach freshman seminars,” Whitman said. “It is more difficult to teach the seminars because you have to present the material in a way that the students will be interested in it and will be able to grasp it.”

During one of his classes, Whitman walked into the classroom and complimented the students on their choice of class.

“This is the best risk decision you have made,” he said.

Books out, with one assignment completed before the class even starts for the term, the group of first-year students sat and listened. He handed out name cards to help the students and himself learn names.

Jacquelyn Magiera, one of Whitman’s students, said she took the class because it fit into her schedule.

“I needed to fill out my schedule, and business is one of the career options I am looking into,” Magiera said.

She said she also took the class because it fulfills a writing-intensive requirement. She said that even if she does not end up liking the business course, she is still completing the requirement.

“I am looking for a class that has a solid introduction to business to see if it is really something that I want to spend the rest of my life doing,” Magiera said.

Laura Koch, associate vice provost for undergraduate education, coordinates the freshman seminar program.

“With so many topics (students) can usually find one that they’re interested in,” Koch said.

Koch has taught seminars, and said it is a wonderful experience for students and professors.

“We’re really looking at ways to improve students’ experience,” Koch said. “One way is to pay more attention to what happens to students during their first year.”

Koch said students generally do well in freshman seminars.

“Students who take freshman seminars have higher retention rates and higher GPAs, although students do self-select into freshman seminars,” Koch said.

She said one advantage of taking freshman seminars is small class sizes, which encourage discussion.

“Students get very engaged, and research shows that engaged students are students who do very well and are retained,” Koch said.

She said she would like to add more seminars to give the opportunity to every first-year student interested, but the University does not have nearly enough faculty members.