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Innovative courses at UWRF benefit students, educators alike

Students in Lyz Wendland's First Year Adventure class called 'What is Art?' work on drawings, paintings, or sketches in class, an assignment inspired by artists who they admired. Kathy M. Helgeson / UWRF

As students return to classes at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls next month, first-year students within the College of Arts and Sciences will find themselves tackling non-traditional topics as an introduction to their college career. With topics ranging from health claims to airplanes to doodling, First Year Adventure (FYA) is an innovative approach to university-level learning created to enrich students' minds and lives from their first days on campus.

A pair of task forces led by Tricia Davis, now the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), in the summers of 2013 and 2015 led to the creation of the program that will mark its second year in 2017-18. Designed to promote and enhance skills critical to student success, as well as to aid in student retention, first-year students who have a major within CAS are required to take a FYA course.

FYA bills itself as an "innovative one-of-a-kind class designed to promote student engagement, improve information literacy, enhance critical thinking skills, promote constructive teamwork abilities and improve retention rates." The program is intended to introduce students to "rigorous academic study at the university level" and is taught through small seminar-style classes.

FYA course topics run the gamut, covering topics ranging from art to physics to music. What is Art? is an exploration of what art is and isn't and is taught by Lyz Wendland, associate lecturer of art. The Universe in 14 Weeks is physics Professor Rellen Hardtke's class designed to explore the "most intriguing questions of current scientific inquiry." Pat O'Keefe, lecturer of music, taught a FYA course last fall titled From Bossa Nova to Funk Carioca: Exploring the Music and Culture of Brazil, and is set to teach The Soundtrack of Your Life this fall. English Lecturer Casey Maude's class, 99 Problems, But is This Class One? spends the semester exploring problem solving in all arenas of life.

Cyndi Kernahan, CAS assistant dean for teaching and learning and professor of psychology, has seen the program grow from the task force level to inception.

"We had a lot of conversations and looked at a lot of the literature on what the skills are that students need to have. It was sort of a conversation of 'what are the things that our students need? What is the literature telling us they need?' That led to the creation of these courses," explains Kernahan. "We thought of it as a way to combine some of these critical skills that students need with first year issues like retention."

According to Kernahan, the benefits of FYA are wide-ranging.

"We focus on critical thinking, information literacy and teamwork. These are skills that employers have said they want students to have, so this is a class where we try to be really explicit about those skills. Students know what they are getting and it's something they can build on," she said. "Another thing it does for students is it gives them an informal second adviser. All these classes are small. It's a way for them to get to know another instructor, in addition to their academic adviser, who is someone that they can go to.

"About 20-25 percent of the class is some orientation to the university. They cover learning how to read your DAR [Degree Audit Report], the library, student life, financial aid. There are some things that they get in these classes that are very practical."

Ann Lawton, an associate lecturer in the Art Department at UWRF, is teaching a FYA class titled The Power of Doodling, Drawing, and Design for the second time during the upcoming school year. A UWRF alumna, she remembers the adjustments needed to succeed at the college level.

"It is exciting, but it can be really difficult to adjust to college life. I remember how challenging and exciting and overwhelming being a freshman student was. So to be able to come in and offer this First Year Adventure class to help let students know, 'hey, we're here for you, we're on your side, we want to help you succeed, we want you to have fun, and we want you to learn,' but still be able to incorporate my discipline into that is so cool," says Lawton. "As an instructor in these courses, we are able to encourage and let students know about the resources they wouldn't get in any other classes."

It's not just academic and critical thinking skills that professors are imparting as part of their FYA courses, but tangible campus advice as well.

Chemistry Professor Ross Jilk teaches Sit Less and Eat More Chocolate, a class aimed at evaluating health claims and exploring the science behind such claims. He acknowledges the skills he provides to his students are twofold.

"I hope that the benefits for the students are many. Skills like critical thinking and information literacy should be useful throughout one's life, on the job and at home," says Jilk. "Beyond that though, I think there is a real benefit in getting first-year students together and helping to guide them through the obstacles that they are likely to bump into while in college."

In addition to the benefits students gain from FYA, professors who teach within the program are reaping the rewards as well. Kernahan is acutely aware of the advantages for educators.

"I think it gives instructors the opportunity to teach something cool. Ross Jilk's class, for example. This program gave him the chance to teach something different. Ross would never be able to do that in his sort of normal chemistry curriculum and classes he is needed to teach, so this is a way for him to do something he is passionate about," she says.

"Arriety Lowell is another example. She's a physics instructor who taught a class called Why Don't We Fall Out of the Sky? She's very passionate, but she's also a licensed pilot. She knows the physics of airplanes, so there is physics in it, but it's also generally about planes. It allows her to take her content knowledge, combine it with her passion and teach this class and the students get to benefit from that," says Kernahan. "All the classes are that way. They are designed around people's passion areas that they have expertise in."

When all is said and done, Kernahan's goal is for first-year students to walk away from their FYA courses with a solid foundation, both inside and outside the classroom at UWRF.

"My hope would be that it is a transformative experience for students," she sais.

FYA will offer twelve sections this fall, spanning a wide range of departments within CAS. For more information on the requirement, visit