The Freshman Year Reinvented

Pacing his classroom like a caged lion, physics professor Michael Witkowski is winding up his lecture on electromagnetic fields to about 30 college freshmen - whose backs are turned to him.

He continues speaking, but the students remain facing the other way.

On the face of it, you wouldn't guess that Dr. Witkowski is both popular and pleased with the revolution in undergraduate education emerging in his class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Here on this campus overlooking the Hudson River in Troy, N.Y., and at a handful of colleges and universities nationwide, freshman year is being radically re-engineered, or, as a few suggest, reinvented.

Since World War II, Rensselaer and other research universities have packed hundreds of freshmen into huge lecture halls for "intro" courses. Sitting in tiers (and possibly tears), they are left hoping that they will connect at long distance with a podium-bound professor or his graduate-student assistant.

The vast majority of freshmen at the nation's 126 research universities still learn under that model, despite soaring tuition fees and persistent calls for reform. But at a few campuses, the past decade has brought some surprising changes to undergraduate education.

Spurred by intense competition for top students and major studies calling for better teaching and more research opportunities for undergraduates, some institutions are getting up-close and personal with introductory classes - and reaping noticeable benefits.

Standard operating procedure for most tenured faculty has long been to spend the bulk of their time doing cutting-edge research that wins plaudits and millions in federal research dollars. Relatively little time is left over for undergraduates.

But in Witkowski's "studio model" classroom, students work closely with a top professor, solving problems in teams using computers and instruments once reserved for the laboratory.

Witkowski says his class patterns the "organized chaos" of the sub-atomic particles he studies. After a brief lecture burst, in which students face Witkowski, they swivel 180 degrees to do lab-style work on computers displaying an image of a cyclotron and charged-particle problem. Witkowski scans screens for signs a student is not getting it.

Jerome Grondin, a freshman from Hillsboro, N.H., who arrived for this first-hour class yawning and bleary-eyed, is quickly wide awake. Tapping the computer keyboard and writing equations on a pad, he and a friend find the radius of a charged particle moving in an electromagnetic field.

"I like this because it seems more interactive," Mr. Grondin says. "I get to talk with a professor and others in the class - not just a graduate assistant. I'm learning a lot better than I would in a big lecture class."

A revolution, but a slow one

Rensselaer's approach is nothing short of revolutionary among research universities. Professors are accustomed to the parade of officials from other universities interrupting class to see what's going on. Yet change is coming only slowly.

A scathing report last month rebuked large research universities for failing to educate undergraduates well, giving them "less than their money's worth." The report, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, cited widespread "cosmetic surgery" rather than "fundamental change" in response to recognition that undergraduate teaching had played second fiddle to lucrative research for too long.

The report cited Rensselaer as an exception.But the school may simply have been forced to face the issue sooner than some others. Long a boot camp for engineers, Rensselaer grads built the Brooklyn Bridge and have guided Apollo missions to the moon. But when enrollment sagged amid a structural deficit of more than $25 million in late 1980s, the university decided on a new direction.

"If I have my way, the big introductory lecture classes will go the way of the dinosaur," says Jack Wilson, dean of faculty. "People say we can't afford to do something else. I think we can't afford not to do something else."

Bucking inertia and tradition, Dr. Wilson is leading Rensselaer's charge to make studio courses the dominant feature for undergraduates. He has installed 18 studio classrooms. Each blends an engineer's penchant for technology - sophisticated lighting, stereo sound, lab instruments, computers - with a curriculum refashioned to make best use of the technology and the senior faculty. It is not cheap. The cost to remake a lecture class into a studio course: about $200,000 each. But operating costs for studio courses often are lower overall - about $10,000 to $150,000 less per course - because lab work and lectures are combined.

Six more studios will be added next year and at least that many courses adapted to the new approach. That's good, Wilson says, because boring the freshmen (who aren't reticent about telling others what a lousy time they are having) is a big mistake.

Students agree with him. "Activity in class is important," says Adam Garrison, a freshman from Bronx, N.Y. "There's an added incentive to learn - and because the professor is right there I won't fall asleep."

Six years after it began, many say Rensselaer's experiment is working. Studio classes touted by Rensselaer are winning over a growing number of students repelled by the large-lecture approach of competitors who charge just as much money. Applications have been steady in recent years - but the quality of students has risen, the school says.

With faculty support rising, the studio model is expanding to encompass higher-level courses. Wilson tries to win over faculty who think studios are a fad. One graduate student who refused to be named said he thought the studio courses tended to be superficial. But several professors say the switch has helped make them excited about teaching again.

"It's much more fun to teach people you know and like," says Debbie Kaminski, a professor of engineering. "I used to have one student every three weeks come by and ask a question - now I have a bunch."

Opening doors in Michigan

A different kind of freshman experience lies about 700 miles west of Troy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

University officials there barely hide their disgust at the Carnegie Foundation report for failing to note major changes in undergraduate education - including freshman year - going on in Ann Arbor. They say the report is about a decade behind.

A key criticism, for example, was the lack of opportunity for undergraduates at large research universities to do research alongside top scientists. Yet the University of Michigan has opened the door to undergraduate research. Last year, 750 undergraduates, including freshmen, were doing research with 400 top faculty.

That is still a small fraction of the 23,000 undergraduates at the university, but officials say opportunity is growing. By comparison, Rensselaer has 400 of 3,000 undergraduates involved in research with senior faculty.

"I think the report is really quite irresponsible," says Lincoln Faller, associate dean for undergraduate education and a professor of English. "It confirms all the hoary stereotypes."

Among the worst, he says, is the image of freshmen trapped in huge lecture halls. In recent years the university has implemented a "first-year seminar" program taught by top faculty that has grown to 160 courses with 25 to 30 students each. About 3,000 students (there are 5,300 freshmen) took advantage of those courses last year, officials say.

David Schoem, assistant dean for undergraduate education who heads the program, says faculty are enjoying the courses and students feel it has "countered the impression of a large impersonal university."

Still, the university faces the fact that it has 35,000 students, and many undergraduates end up in large lecture classes.

George Blower, a senior, had some seminar courses but found nearly all the higher-level classes had at least 80 to 100 students. He thinks he has had 10 to 15 large lecture classes.

"You're not getting much individual attention in those lecture classes," he says adding, "I understand the university has to do this. Having those professors out doing their research makes my diploma worth more."

But Alfreda Moses, a freshman, is fired up about her recent project with a prominent psychology professor.

"It's a myth that undergrads don't get their money's worth," she says. "But it's very individual - it's based on you. You can't blame the university."

Her early research changed her outlook and she has already shifted from a medicine to education major. Now she is working on another research project for the same professor.

"I've never had such a great experience," she says. "I can hardly wait until next year."

* E-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

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