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Seminars mix advising and learning

For most students it is simply a matter of signing up for the requisite calculus, physics and chemistry subjects and one HASS elective. One part of the freshman course selection is particularly interesting, though: the selection of a Freshman Advisor Seminar, a combination academic/advising experience where students have hands-on exploration in a topic of their interest.

This year students may follow a case through the Boston courts; study the anatomy of a car and other common machines; read Shakespeare's lesser-known plays; ponder the ethics of the high-tech world, or learn how to build a habitable planet. With titles like "Fatigue and Fracture of Freshmen and Other Materials" and "Climate Change: What to Wear," it's clear many of the advisors want to show that the learning will be fun.

In the nine years since its inception, the optional Freshman Advisor Seminar Program has grown from eight seminars to 135 because of high student interest. The program now serves 970 students (90 percent of the class) and provides regular, intensive contact between students and advisors-designed to strengthen the relationship between the two.

Through the program, the advisors meet with their seminar, a group of no more than eight students, for at least an hour and a half each week. They discuss general student issues and launch into their topic areas-many of which provide diversity to the standardized freshman schedule. In addition, advisors meet with students one-on-one a few times each semester.

"Our freshmen take a fairly regimented first year, with most subjects taught in large lecture halls," said Travis Merritt, dean for undergraduate academic affairs. "This program gives them a chance to work together in a very small group setting. The seminars are interactive and in many, students will lead group discussions. This provides a very helpful complement to the rest of their classes."

"It's a mode of teaching that's more informal. (The students) take more of an active role," said Professor Mary Fuller of literature, who leads a group on Shakespeare.

The seminars are reasonably rigorous academic activities, requiring about four hours per week of preparation for class.

In Professor Lawrence Bacow's freshman seminar, the group will be following a civil suit in real time. In the suit, a Fall River prisoner is seeking to recover damages for alleged mistreatment during his time in custody. The students will read the complaint, isolate the legal issues, do research, read the briefs filed in the pretrail hearing and talk with the judge about what's involved in managing a case of this type.

Many of MIT's faculty don't have a lot of contact with first-year students because of the standardized first year schedule. This is particularly true for the engineering students, Dean Merritt said. The Freshman Advisor Seminars allow a large group of faculty to interact with the freshman, providing multiple benefits for both sides.

One of the benefits the faculty reap from the seminars is the ability to get a more detailed picture of students' experiences, according to Professor Fuller.

"It gives me an opportunity to see my advisees on a weekly basis," Professor Bacow said. "I love to be a student's introduction to a topic."

The seminars are predominantly led by faculty members. Seminar leaders this year include nine department heads, the provost and associate provost, the chairman of the Corporation, the current faculty chair, associate chair and the faculty chair-elect. Most of the advisors are experienced faculty, with 75 percent having tenure. The group also includes one Nobel laureate. Seven non-academic deans participate as well as a small number of other staff members. In addition, each leader has at least one associate advisor-an upper-class student who volunteers with the advisor in leading the seminar and in advising students.

Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) leads the departments in commitment to the program with16 seminars offered by its faculty. The department also has other outreach programs for freshmen and recently held a field trip to introduce them to the field of geology.

One of the program's goals is to provide intellectual mentors for the students. Student/advisor relationships are intense throughout the first year, Professor Merritt said. "Some relationships endure throughout the student's four years and continue beyond."

A number of the seminars have developed into group projects that last far beyond the student's first term. The campus's experimental electronic newspaper, Freshman Fishwrap, was developed in a seminar given by the Media Lab's Walter Bender and Pascal Chesnais. Professor Merritt's own seminar has lived on as the Word Patrol, a group whose members last year visited the Harrington Elementary School in Cambridge to work with fourth graders on language games and word contests. Professor John Southard of EAPS takes his students on a January trip out west to test what they've learned from their seminar.

A number of universities, such as Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have freshman seminar programs, but MIT is the only one to pair advising with actual instruction, according to Professor Merritt. "By reaching 90 percent of our freshman class, ours is the most comprehensive of the programs as well," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 6).

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