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August 7, 2003

Discovery Seminars show way to world beyond high school

Susan Jeffords hasn’t forgotten the moment.

A divisional dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, Jeffords annually takes new faculty members out to lunch as a way to welcome them to the UW and get in touch with their early impressions of the job. That’s when, one year, a new assistant professor leaned across the table and asked in all sincerity, “When do we tell them they’re not in high school anymore?”

Jeffords had no answer at the time. Now she does.

Aug. 25.

That’s the day the College of Arts and Sciences will launch its first Discovery Seminars, designed exclusively for incoming freshmen. The classes will run through Sept. 19 and, in addition to delving into a variety of engaging and exciting topics, the five-credit-hour sessions will be an intense primer into how things operate at a research institution.

“This is a different kind of education,” Jeffords said. “We expect different things from students. In high school they take notes, they takes tests, they take notes, they take tests. Too many students come to college and just sort of do that in a different, faster version. Well that’s not really what a college education is about.”

Rather, she said, it’s about learning through inquiry and discovery. The 25 Discovery Seminars offered later this month will have ample opportunity for such learning. The subjects range from art to zoology and enrollment is limited to 25 per class, so students and instructors will have plenty of opportunity to interact. Students complete at least one writing component and one oral presentation, as well as learning how to work in a group setting.

They will also have a chance to meet with advisers to talk about majors, learn about the library, and get an introduction to the computing and technology resources available on campus. They will stay in dorms and have a chance to gather as a group and hopefully develop some relationships that will make them feel more comfortable once the quarter begins.

The broad goal that each of the classes shares is to instill a hunger for discovery. The first year will be judged a success, Jeffords says, if students learn how to ask questions, how to think about big problems, and if they have fun doing it.

For the 25 instructors, the seminars are a chance to teach about their passion. For example, David Allen, a professor of psychosocial & community health, is driven by a commitment to make the UW a more welcoming place for students of color.

He says students of color in predominantly white institutions like the UW face a draining sort of energy tax that results from having to constantly explain themselves and to deal with the assumptions of others. His course, Who Am I Here? Differences and Identity at UW, will explore the social climate faced by minorities on campus.

“The energy tax is imposed by dominant, white groups,” Allen said. “I hope this can make it a little less taxing. And I hope students from the dominant cultures can see diversity as a resource rather than a negative challenge.”

The college is piloting early fall seminars for sophomores, juniors and seniors too. But the emphasis this year is on the freshmen and the Discovery Seminars. Jeffords thinks the program will be a selling point for the UW as students consider their college choices in the future.

“We’re realizing that for a lot of people this may be a decision point,” she said. “They have a chance to have this experience in a small classroom, and they get the benefit of all of the great things that are taking place at the University. So in the future we’re going to try to publicize this more before students even think about applying here.”

The program received seed funding as result of a request made by UW alumna Virginia Wyman to the Wyman Youth Trust. Jeffords says she expects the program to pay for itself by next year.

More information about the Discovery Seminars, including a complete list of the class offerings, is available on the Web at www.artsci.washing ton.edu/discovery/.