A Fresh Start

The university invests in promising initiatives to sharpen undergraduate education

Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke
Photos by Mark Mulville

Alfonzo Willoughby listens to John Grehan, director of science and collections at the Buffalo Museum of Science, talk about his skull collection to a group of UB students led by geology professor Tracy Gregg (hands on hips).

Tracy Gregg spends a lot of time exploring lava flows throughout the solar system—literally from Mars to the depths of Earth’s oceans. But these days, her scientific curiosity is fastened on an issue much closer to home: how to spread a sense of lively inquiry among a group of freshmen who are the first members of one of UB’s new Undergraduate Academies.

“A lot of this stems from my deep-seated belief that research is something that we all are born knowing how to do,” says Gregg, a volcanologist involved in many research investigations and UB associate professor of geology. “If you watch any kid, they’re always doing experiments; that’s how they learn about their life.

“But somehow that drive to find out about your life and how the world works gets pounded out of most kids,” she continues. “And I don’t know why, but it enrages me and saddens me all at once. So to be able to work with these students who are the voters of tomorrow … .” Gregg’s voice trails off as she explains what sparked her involvement as “master scholar” for UB’s new Research Exploration Academy. Twenty freshmen from diverse backgrounds and majors are enrolled in her research seminar that will meet weekly during the academic year.

“We’ve got everything from the predictable ones—the biomed kind of students, engineers, people who are interested in science,” she says. “And we’ve got people who are interested in anthropology, business and physical therapy. We also have a handful of undeclared majors, which I love. I think it’s a little difficult to expect 17- and 18-year-olds leaving home for the first time to really know what they want to do on the first day.”

Gregg invites UB professors from different disciplines to discuss with her students how research is done in their fields and, furthermore, how they define research. So far, they have heard presentations from scholars in English, history and political science, in addition to the representatives from biostatistics, medicine and computer science. “This is to drive home the point that research does not only occur in a lab,” says Gregg.

“In this course, I feel there is more analysis and discovery in preparation for my future, while in some of my other classes I feel I am just regurgitating information,” says Amanda Dotterman, a freshman from the Bronx who intends to major in English. “I now better understand that research not only involves seeking out information, but also knowing what to look for, finding out where to look and analyzing material once you have found it.”

“The learning academies are a vehicle for making students aware of the variety of opportunities that are available to them at UB,” says Michael E. Ryan, vice provost for undergraduate education. “They can [also] engage directly with faculty through participation in the Discovery Seminar Program, research projects and independent study.”

Students engaged in the learning academy seminars were selected based on interest indicated on their admissions application and will participate in special seminars throughout their four undergraduate years. For now, 20 students will be added to each seminar with each entering class. Growth over the longer term will be paced with the ability to enlist other faculty to join as instructors in the seminars or as mentors for various academy projects.

Indeed, while they involve a weekly, 2-credit seminar taken on top of regular coursework, the academies themselves are intended to reach well beyond the classroom walls, piquing student interest in a myriad of potential topics and generally enlivening their learning—and living—on campus.

For example, some students choose to live with other academy members on designated floors in the residence halls. Others limit their participation to attending academy-sponsored events, lectures or fieldtrips. Either way, the goal is for participating students to make their academy their home base through their senior year. In November, the academies opened up temporary headquarters in Norton Hall, with a permanent home planned to debut in fall 2008, which will feature the latest technology and seminar classrooms to foster student-faculty interaction and collaboration. For now, the plan is to proceed slowly but deliberately, armed with a lot of feedback from students.

The students who participate in the academies—through enrollment in an academies seminar course, living on an academies residential floor or being on the academies activities listserv—currently number about 300, which is expected to increase with the incoming freshmen in fall 2008. And to prepare, residence hall space reserved for academies participants will double to accommodate them. “Our hope is that every year it will grow a little bit more, that we will expand what’s being offered—to some finite limit,” says Gregg. “We’ve got to see these freshman students through and make sure the program is working for them. It’s imperative that we keep open the lines of communication with the students so we can find out what’s working and what needs improvement.”

The benefits of civic engagement

“For me, the academy is a way of connecting what goes on at our campus with the wider world,” says Peter Sobota, master scholar for the learning academy devoted to civic engagement and UB clinical assistant professor of social work. “I think there is a practical link between the activities of the university, its students, the community and then the rest of society.”

In Sobota’s seminar devoted to civic engagement, a group of 20 freshmen gather once a week for frequently intense dialogue on the nature of social change and how best to promote it. They represent diverse cultural backgrounds and sometimes clashing viewpoints as they wrestle with what it means to be civically engaged in a multicultural society.

For instance, they are looking at the lives of famous people like Jane Addams, Václev Havel and Mahatma Gandhi who were called to action in their lives, often unexpectedly so. At the same time, Sobota’s students are reflecting on their own attitudes and beliefs about serving others and how to achieve economic and social justice when complex factors are at play.

“Together as a class, we’re reading about social justice, about stewardship, what does politics mean, what does service mean?” Sobota adds. “Students begin with an individual definition of these concepts. We dialogue—this is followed by group discussion where students become exposed to different orientations. Then I put them in larger groups. I’m hoping that in the end a wider point of view is developed, a bigger lens that is now reflective of what other people have said—almost the complementary view to their own.”

“I have really come to believe that by taking the time to step back and think about more than yourself, you can really come up with ways to help people in new and inventive ways,” says Chase Harvey, a UB freshman intending to major in pharmacy and a member of the Civic Engagement Academy who is living with other academy students in Red Jacket Quad. Coming from a small town in rural Cattaraugus County, NY, Harvey says he “didn’t realize how much diversity and things to experience there are out in the world.”

In both academies, the idea is to make students continuously aware of the tantalizing range of experiences possible at UB, experiences that may have been hidden from view in the past. “UB is an incredible institution with thousands of opportunities,” Gregg says. “But until now, a lot of undergraduate research opportunities were not necessarily easy to find. One of the primary goals of the research academy is to bring all these activities together under one umbrella. So if you have an undergraduate who is interested in being part of a research experience, or if there’s a professor who has an opportunity for a student, we have a place for these people to find each other.”

Bill Parsons, research associate and scientific illustrator at the Buffalo Museum of Science, with UB group.

Dotterman, for instance, says that Gregg helped her locate another UB seminar that focuses specifically on her interests in English and historical research. And while Dotterman doesn’t reside with other academy students, she has taken part in academy events and finds the people she meets there to be open and welcoming. “They are interested in the pursuit of knowledge and learning, and they encourage the exchange of ideas,” she says. “It’s great to experience that outside of a classroom.”

“In 2005, we recognized the undergraduate experience was—for many of our students—particularly amorphous,” says Satish K. Tripathi, UB provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “We wanted to change that. Our goal was, and continues to be, to create a distinctive and transformative undergraduate experience within a large public research university.

“To accomplish this goal, we felt it was necessary to harness the special attributes of the University at Buffalo—research and our tradition of bringing our knowledge and expertise into the public domain through community service,” Tripathi says.

The lessons of discovery

In 2006, as part of the renewal, the university launched the increasingly popular Discovery Seminar Program to encourage undergraduates to explore a variety of academic disciplines in a small-class setting. In particular, they’re intended to forge mentoring relationships with some of the university’s most accomplished faculty members.

Tripathi himself has been teaching a Discovery Seminar on data mining and also addressed Gregg’s research seminar on this topic. “You might think that undergraduate students would be a bit intimidated in a class with the provost as their teacher,” Tripathi says. “Well, that presumption has not held up in my experience. In my Discovery Seminar course, each week my students came to class eager to learn and eager to contribute to the discussion in meaningful ways.”

“The Discovery Seminars are terrific small-class, 1-credit opportunities to have students study with faculty intimately,” says Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English who also serves as a faculty fellow for the research academy and will teach a Discovery Seminar on Ancient and Modern Justice in spring 2008. “They are great fun, and you meet students outside majors,” she says. “All these programs introduce opportunity and flexibility.”

“The larger goal is to make the UB academic experience worthwhile and valuable for every undergraduate, not just those who happen to fall into a predetermined niche, but everybody,” says Gregg. “Undergraduate students who’ve been accepted to this university deserve to have the richest experience that they can have.”

Ann Whitcher-Gentzke is editor of UB Today.

For more commentary and background on UB’s undergraduate plans, go to www.buffalo.edu/UBT/26-2/undergraduate.

Related Reading: New Honors College a Milestone, Signs of Student Success, Undergraduate Learning Academies