First-year seminars, which were introduced at Iowa by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1997, provide an opportunity for first- and second-semester students to study a wide range of topics with accomplished faculty in business, engineering, law, liberal arts and sciences, medicine, and pharmacy. Most seminars meet for 50 minutes each week, and students earn one hour of credit toward graduation.
Each is the focus of a first-year seminar offered this fall at The University of Iowa. Such courses help 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,” says Wallace Loh, executive vice president and provost. “We can shrink the psychological size of the university,” making first-year students feel less intimidated.
With enrollment limited to about 15 students per class, the seminars help undergraduates create social connections among their peers and with top University administrators and faculty members. Helena Dettmer, associate dean for undergraduate programs and curriculum in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says data show that engaging new students is critical in retention.
“These seminars provide an opportunity to see faculty research firsthand,” she adds.
For Emily Melvold, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication and in Spanish, the first-year seminar experience has provided an extra boost of confidence throughout her college career. The Maquoketa, Iowa, native took Ways of Speaking, Ways of Life, taught by Kristine Fitch, professor of communication studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She says the class gave her a unique opportunity to connect with professors.
“It was intimidating at first,” she says, noting that one assignment for the course required that she meet with multiple professors during their office hours.
“It showed me the ins and the outs [of the University] along with other topics,” she says, such as how to get the best classes, communicate effectively, and create strong academic ties with professors and teaching assistants.
About 20 percent of the first-year student body was able to enroll in a seminar last year, increasing to 50 percent this fall, and Loh says his aim is to reach 100 percent of first-year students in 2010, offering roughly 200 courses.
By expanding these courses—which are taught by accomplished faculty members—University administrators hope to spark new interests for students in areas that they might otherwise overlook, says Kathryn Hall, assistant to the associate deans in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“Faculty behind a podium can seem far away,” she says, noting that the up-close-and-personal quality of the first-year seminars is very engaging.
Doug True, senior vice president and University treasurer, calls the seminars “enriching programs,” and is excited to be teaching a course this fall on managing finances.
Allowing first-year students to study complex subjects in a simpler format, True says, not only generates new interests but also allows students to learn by example.
“By looking, by seeing, by asking questions, it’s great innovation,” he says. “It creates contact with the people we are here to serve.”
To see a list of first-year seminar topics offered this fall, visit www.uiowa.edu/admissions/seminars/topics.
by Anna Lothson
A version of this article appeared in the April 23 issue of the Daily Iowan. Lothson, a native of DeKalb, Ill., spent a year on the Daily Iowan staff reporting on politics, UI administration, and faculty news. She graduated in May 2009 with a degree in journalism and mass communication and is working in Iowa City as an intern with the Gazette.