Freshman seminars challenge stereotypes of large universities

by Sam Kean

For once, freshmen have a leg up on everyone else.
Whether they want to know “How to Win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry” or just want to improve their decision-making skills, a freshman seminar might be the class first-year students need to fill out their schedules.
This is the third year the University has offered these seminars, which are open only to freshmen. Each college is allowed to teach a certain number, and professors interested in teaching seminars propose topics in their area of interest and expertise. The University offers 87 seminars for Fall 2000.
Even University President Mark Yudof is teaching a seminar this fall, titled “Students and the Constitution.”
But while each seminar has a specific topic, the benefits of taking one run much deeper.
“We want (freshmen) to learn how to be a college student,” says Linda Ellinger, associate vice provost for undergraduate education.
Class size is limited to 15, which allows students to interact with each other and faculty members on a much more personal level than the typical 500-student lecture hall class.
And because there are no prerequisites for any of these classes, students can connect with people with whom they would not normally have class.
In addition, students are encouraged to discuss any concerns they might have about life at the University, including making the transition from high school to college.
Larry Miller, a professor of chemistry who teaches a seminar entirely on the color red, promotes such discussion, especially at the beginning of a semester when students do not feel comfortable bringing up such issues on their own. But by the end of the semester, he said, they begin to help each other with problems.
Miller’s class on everything red arose from a desire to teach a liberal arts class that included science. As a chemist, he decided to teach a class on a specific color, but he did not know which color until inspiration struck him while driving on the Washington Avenue Bridge.
He decided the color red could be used to study an interesting variety of topics, including communism. Throughout the semester, Miller supplements his classroom work with activities such as a trip to an art museum.
So far, the response from both faculty and students has been positive.
Thirty-five to 40 more seminars are planned for spring 2001. Students interested in taking one should talk to their academic advisor or visit

Sam Kean welcomes comments at (612) 627-4070 x3216.