Immersion Therapy: First year seminars offer an intense approach to learning
“Let’s just say, some of us made sure Marie Antoinette got some punishment, even though we didn’t sentence her to the guillotine,” says Sara Beth Melick ’13 from Birmingham, Ala., as she triumphantly leaves Furman Hall.
And as Melick ponders over the queen’s punishment, her fellow students are pondering over the water budget for the state and region. Not to mention Melick’s other friends who are at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina capturing live images of Jupiter, Mars, and the Moon.
Yes, this is happening at Furman, and yes, these are actual classes at Furman. Furman’s First Year Seminars (FYS) are designed to introduce first-year students to the intellectual vibrancy of the liberal arts. Many students arrive at college with an idea that the academics will be a relatively simple extension of the requirements of high school. However, First Year Seminars show that this is not the case–at least at Furman. Instead, the FYS program is designed to stimulate minds for the continual pursuit of knowledge. First-year students may be a bit disoriented when the classes aren’t the usual “here’s the facts, now repeat” format, but they’ll quickly recover when they learn the opportunities discovered from Furman's signature liberal arts education.
Melick was a student in “Marie Antoinette: Bad Queen or Bad Press,” in which students examined the ways Marie Antoinette was portrayed through a variety of media, including biographies, memoirs, films, portraits, Revolutionary pamphlets and correspondence.
“By introducing a variety of resources, I hoped to impart to my students the fact that knowledge gained and wisdom formed cannot be done from a single source,” says Patricia Pecoy, professor of French and designer of this course. “I sincerely hoped they would carry over this experience into all their future courses at Furman and learn to look at a topic from the broadest possible perspective.”
Pecoy divided the class into two groups, with each group reading different materials. During each class, the groups discussed the differences in the materials and collaborated on how the history was portrayed.
The seminar culminated at the end of the semester with a re-trial of Marie Antoinette. Each team produced a list of charges for which the queen would be tried, documentary evidence, and witnesses drawn from the opposing team.
But the result of the course went beyond Marie Antoinette.
Melick explains, “We learned that when we are researching, we need to start with an open mind, actively look for biases and then form our own opinions. I really learned how to interact with professors and other students on a different level.”
Transforming the Future
Meanwhile, students in the “Sustainability of Natural Resources” seminar were making some judgments of their own.
The class, which was the creative culmination of Earth and Environmental Science professors Bill Ranson, Weston Dripps, and C. Brannon Andersen, taught students within the classroom, through field trips and through exposure to the outdoors about living sustainably.
But this was no class on recycling.
The course began with a discussion on the true meaning of sustainability, and together the class designed a seminar that would match the interests of the class. With these interests in mind, the students then completed a variety of projects that helped them to learn the challenges facing humanity and how to be better environmental citizens.
For example, one project included determining the water budgets for the state and the upstate of South Carolina. Another group analyzed various scenarios for renewable energy use at Furman and wrote recommendations for designated implementations–ideas that can be put to good use, considering Furman plans to meet the Climate Action Plan to become carbon neutral by 2026. A third project involved choosing issues in which to communicate with elected officials and the media, including writing letters to editors and organizing phone- and email-athons.
“This class emphasizes that the problems we face are global problems that affect the entire Earth system,” says Ranson. “My students know the science behind our global sustainability crises, they know what we need to do, they are participating in doing it. My hope is that students in this class will dispel some of the myths of sustainability, helping it to become more mainstream.”
Investigating the Present
The“Mars: Shoulders of Giants” seminar was designed with the goal of analyzing the development of scientific knowledge through the lens of the world’s changing view of Mars. The course was collaboratively designed by Mike Winiski (Center for Teaching and Learning), David Moffett (Physics and Astronomy), and Mike Svec (Science Education). While Winiski took the lead instructional role this term, professors Moffett and Svec guest-lectured and led laboratory investigations in Furman's Timmons Planetarium.
Sure, the class included celestial observation and studying Copernicus and Galileo, but it also included more unexpected avenues for learning. For example, the class studied science fiction, watching the film “Flight to Mars” and discussing how fiction has reflected the world’s understanding of Mars.
“Because our scientific understanding of Mars has progressed so far since many of the science fiction books were written and movies were made, our initial reaction to many of these portrayals is to wince or laugh,” says Winiski. “However, when analyzed in light of our understanding about the red planet at the time, we get a glimpse into historical views and see how far we have come and how far we have to go.”
Another activity atypical of a “normal” class on planetary science was something reminiscent of a murder mystery. The class read a controversial book entitled Heavenly Intrigue, in which the authors challenge traditional views about Tycho Brahe’s death. What followed was a formal debate on whether or not Johannes Kepler murdered his colleague Brahe.
A favorite of most of the students was visiting Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) outside of Rosman, N.C. During the visit, students used radio and optical telescopes in order to observe celestial objects and digitize images of Jupiter, Mars and the moon.
“The trip to PARI was, simply put, an astronomically good time!” says Tyler Wilson ’13 of Bristol, Tenn. “It was a unique experience to use the equipment to take some up-close shots of a few of our favorite planets. We learned a few of the techniques scientists use to observe what is in our solar system and beyond. Plus, seeing the envious faces of my friends, who I told that I was going stargazing for the weekend, was priceless.”
Engaging the Mind
Though each First Year Seminar seems to be focused on a specific issue or specialty, each course was designed with greater goal in mind: to encourage students to develop a habit of defensible and rigorous thinking. Thus, the content learned in the class is secondary to the learning process.
“Mars was just a great context, or learning environment, in which to explore issues such as the progressive nature of understanding,” says Winiski.
Similarly, adds Pecoy, “Marie Antoinette was merely the pretext for a prolonged examination of how judgments are formed.”
And Ranson’s goal is echoed throughout Furman’s core beliefs: “Through this course, I wanted to inspire students that success is not defined by how much money they make, but by how little they impact the planet and how much they give back to humanity and all of creation.”