A&M: Top faculty teach new freshmen in seminars program

COLLEGE STATION–It’s not often that freshmen at a major research institution find themselves in a class taught by the university’s president, but that is just what is happening at Texas A&M University this fall for students participating in the First Year Seminar (FYS) program.

Such sessions apply seminarstyle teaching to a learning community setting focused around a particular topic. The seminars at Texas A&M are taught by a variety of professors, many of whom are among the university’s top faculty and have won awards for their teaching and research.

GREAT OPPORTUNITY– For both the students and the professors, it is a great opportunity, says Kristin S. Harper, executive director for undergraduate studies and the FYS program director. The students get to learn from some of the university’s most outstanding professors and the professors, in turn, get to interact with the university’s youngest students and cover topics that are sometimes fun and always unusual.

Take for example, the course being taught by Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin on “Simulation And Gaming: Transforming Society.”

“I’m looking forward to getting to know the students in the firstyear seminar in simulation and gaming that I’ll be teaching this semester with Dr. James Wall,” Loftin said in one of his recent e-mail “Campus Updates” for faculty and staff. The course will examine how gaming technology is transforming society with respect to decision-making activities for both military and civilian applications. Loftin earned three degrees in physics and continues to hold rank as a professor.

NOTED FACUL teacher with whom the students will already be familiar is Debbie Thomas, a noted faculty member in the Department of Oceanography in the College of Geosciences. They had the opportunity to hear her speak at Freshman Convocation, the formal welcome of new students held the day before the start of fall classes. In her class titled “One Bad Day 65 Million Years Ago,” Thomas, whose teaching and research talents have been acknowledged with two major awards, will address some of the topics she brought up when she spoke at the convocation.

Thomas says the course uses the mass extinction event that occurred approximately 65 million years ago to explore several major topics in the geosciences, employing a hands-on, discoverybased approach as much as possible to enhance the understanding and discussion of how geological problems are researched.

“First- year seminars are a wonderful opportunity for freshmen to have a small-class experience while exploring a topic under the guidance of an instructor who designed the course, from title to syllabus, with first-year students in mind,” says Harper . “These small groups of firstyear students can learn about research from some of our top research faculty, explore the world of books with a research librarian and discuss current issues and events with faculty and practitioners in the field.”

POP CULTURE– Some courses have students reading critical essays that examine the icons of pop culture. For example “Twilighters and Moonlighters: Fan Studies and the New American Vampire,” taught by Mary “Cait” Coker and Candace Benefiel, associate professor of library science, introduces students to academic discourse on a topic they know well from popular movies and TV.

In “Finding Facebook Friends in China,” Suzanne Droleskey, executive director of international programs for students, and Randy Kluver, executive director of the Institute for Pacific Asia, help students explore key components of both U.S. and Chinese culture by pairing them with firstyear university students in China for discussion on the economic, political and social components of both countries.

In a class titled “Death and Destruction: How Drought Changes History,” Steven Quiring, assistant professor in geography and a Teaching Excellence Award recipient, gives students an overview of how destructive drought can be to social and economic systems.

Of practical interest to new freshmen is a course on how to be a “Money Wise Aggie” and another on “Money Savvy Students” or “Got a Little Story to Tell Ya, Aggies,” which covers the interesting and unusual history of Texas A&M.

Harper explains that, while many schools have seminar programs for freshmen, not all are as extensive as those at A&M.

“Some are more like extended orientations to introduce students to college life,” she says.

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2010-11-04 digital edition

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