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Top UW Teachers Prepare to Engage Freshmen in New Courses

June 26, 2015
woman talking to group of students by a whiteboard
Senior Lecturer Meg Flanigan Skinner, right, here working with students in a physiology course, is one of dozens of top UW instructors who will teach new first-year seminars starting this fall. (UW Photo)

Bruce Parkinson is recognized internationally as an accomplished scholar in the field of solar energy, with an academic pedigree that includes publishing more than 200 papers in scientific journals, securing four U.S. patents and earning a raft of honors from professional organizations.

But Parkinson, the University of Wyoming’s J.E. Warren Professor of Energy and Environment in the School of Energy Resources and the Department of Chemistry, has much more than his extensive research program on his agenda for the fall 2015 semester. Instead of working solely with graduate students and those in upper-division undergraduate courses in his fields, Parkinson also will teach brand-new freshmen from a wide variety of backgrounds in one of UW’s new first-year seminars.

Parkinson is one of dozens of top UW instructors who have signed on to teach the seminars, which are three-credit courses required of all new freshmen under the university’s new general studies program. Incoming students have been registering for the seminars throughout freshman orientation sessions in June, with topics ranging from “the Beauty and Joy of Computing” to “the Anthropology of Monsters” to “Outdoor Leadership.”

The idea behind the seminars is to engage new students immediately in the college academic experience, help in the transition from high school and give them the skills they need to succeed -- including critical and creative thinking, inquiry and analysis, and writing and speaking proficiency. None of the courses will be larger than 24 students, allowing class members to develop relationships with one another and their instructors -- all of whom are highly experienced teachers, and many of whom have been honored for teaching excellence by the university and their individual colleges.

Parkinson’s seminar, “Energy and Society,” actually is a revised version of an introductory course he has taught for several years for new students majoring in energy resource management and development in the School of Energy Resources. The class will explore past, present and future sources of energy, their advantages and limitations, with students working individually and in groups to research specific topics including the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, nuclear energy and climate change.

“It’s a fun class to teach,” says Parkinson, who adds that he enjoys working with first-year undergraduates. “Like any class, if you get a good mix of students who participate, it can be really fun. Energy is a very complex but topical subject, and it’s also controversial. Any controversial issue has many sides to it, and it’s important to look at all points of view.”

From Agriculture to Zombies

While Parkinson’s seminar is similar to a course he has taught before, other first-year seminars are new creations that the instructors are excited to debut in the fall 2015 and spring 2016 semesters.

Associate Lecturer Val Pexton in the Department of English long has been intrigued by zombie movies, particularly what they say about societal fears over time. So her first-year seminar, “Night of the Living Film: Zombies, Living Dead, Walkers … Humans,” will use zombie films and TV shows to explore issues including gender, class, race, environment, science and technology.

“Every decade, whatever we’re worrying about, we see in zombie films,” Pexton says. “This will be an interesting way to have students explore the angsts of the times.”

Each first-year seminar will include a final project of some sort. Pexton’s students will either make a film or write a graphic novel; Parkinson’s will complete a final research project and man looking at small transparency in his handgive an oral presentation.

For Dannele Peck, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, her first-year seminar, “(Mis)perceptions of Agriculture,” is an opportunity to return to teaching freshmen after seven years of teaching only upper-division and graduate-level courses in ag economics.

“I really missed getting a chance to connect with freshmen,” Peck says. “I love interacting with students -- it’s what makes our jobs fun, exciting and new. These first-year students, in particular, have energy and open-mindedness that is so refreshing -- great for keeping me on my toes as an instructor. I hope to be able to direct their energy in a way that will allow them to be successful in all of their studies.”

Peck’s students will explore controversial issues in agriculture and natural resources, such as genetically modified organisms, animal welfare, wolves and hydraulic fracturing -- topics that are especially polarizing. The class will work collaboratively to “track down information from diverse sources and tease out facts from fiction.”

“I want my students to be willing to see controversial issues from other people’s perspectives,” she says. “I’m not talking about simply recognizing that differing perspectives exist, but actively seeking them out, so that when they form their own viewpoints, they have considered the full spectrum of ideas -- including what we understand scientifically and what is still unknown.”

Developing Critical Consumers of Information

Encouraging students to think critically, and explore issues beyond the superficial treatment they often receive in popular media, is a common theme among the first-year seminars. Kristen Landreville, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism, hopes her students will become more “media literate” in her course, “Trending Now: Media Literacy in the 21st Century.”

“Students should be cognizant of where they get their information and entertainment,” Landreville says. “I want them to become critical consumers of the media they choose.”

Meg Flanigan Skinner, senior lecturer in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, has a similar objective for students in her seminar, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” When it comes to health care issues, for example, people most often turn to the Internet for information -- but what they find isn’t always on the mark.

“How do we know what to believe? Can we know what to believe? My aim is to help students develop the skills needed to confidently evaluate issues and to find information that will accurately inform their developing viewpoints,” Flanigan Skinner says. “We’ll also look at how our personal perspectives and biases enter in.”

Flanigan Skinner -- who spent the past four years directing UW’s Ellbogen Center for Teaching and Learning -- has high hopes for the first-year seminars. She was a consultant to the faculty task force that developed the concept and is serving as coordinator for the program’s first year.

“What we’re doing is moving students away from the idea of passive learning,” says Flanigan Skinner, who notes that all of the seminars have the same objective of developing the skills needed for students to have successful college careers. “We want them to learn the research and higher-order thinking skills that will serve them well; we want them to explore and be curious; and we want them to be part of learning communities where they have a sense of belonging.”

Research shows that such experiences early in students’ college careers increase student retention and success, she says.

Freshmen who have already settled on majors will be allowed to select seminars that fit within their academic interests, but students also will have the opportunity to enroll in courses focused on topics that have little to do with their chosen disciplines.

“We’re all teaching for the same outcomes -- the courses are based thematically just to attract interest,” Flanigan Skinner says. “We’re aiming to develop fundamentally important skills that apply to everything, no matter what discipline you’re in.”

The outcomes-based focus of the first-year seminars reflects the overall objective of the new general studies program, called the University Studies Program (USP), which consists of coursework required for all students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at UW. In addition to that core of 30 required credit hours in the new program, UW students will continue to be required to complete specific coursework in their respective colleges and for their specific majors.

USP 2015 identifies 13 essential learning outcomes that all those receiving UW bachelor’s degrees must meet. In addition to critical thinking and communication skills, the essential outcomes include intercultural knowledge and engagement, knowledge of human culture and the physical and natural world, quantitative reasoning, ethical reasoning, and problem-solving ability. Such an approach is favored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and it’s in line with UW President Dick McGinity’s focus on producing graduates ready to compete in a global marketplace.

Implementation of USP 2015 this fall culminates close to five years of review and revision involving dozens of faculty members and student affairs professionals across campus, along with input from Wyoming community colleges.


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Chad Baldwin

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