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Enrollment falls for first-year seminars

When the University's first-year seminar program was unveiled in 2002, it was hailed as a seminal success of President Ruth Simmons' wide-ranging Plan for Academic Enrichment.

Now, the flagship program may be losing some of the wind in its sails.

According to preliminary figures provided by University Registrar Michael Pesta, first-year seminar enrollment dropped about 8 percent for the 2007-08 academic year, checking four straight years of expansion following the program's inception .

As of Feb. 4, the day before the end of online registration, a total of 817 students had enrolled in first year seminars in the Fall 2007 and Spring 2008 semesters, down from 891 during the 2006-07 academic year. If enrollment holds steady, it will be the lowest total since 2003-04, the second year of the program, when 750 students enrolled. (Subsequent changes in enrollment should be "minimal," since the data were from near the end of shopping period, Pesta wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.)

James Valles, the associate dean of the college for curriculum, oversees the first-year seminar program for the Office of the Dean of the College. He said he did not believe the decline was a cause for concern or that it signaled flagging interest in the program. The decline in total enrollment, he said, was due to a "slight drop" in the total number of seminars offered. Fifty-six seminars were on the list provided by Pesta, compared with 63 offered in 2006-07.

The data from previous years were provided by the Office of the Provost.

Instead, Valles said, the rise in average enrollment per seminar - just under 15 students this year - is "good and looking vital," signaling that student interest remains strong for the seminars that are being offered.

The decline in total offerings, Valles said, may have been related to Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron's restructuring of the office following her arrival in October 2006, which resulted in the departure of a number of long-serving deans. As a result, The Herald reported in October, the office was left undermanned and relatively inexperienced for much of last year, when the current slate of seminars was being planned.

Valles himself is new to the office since Bergeron's arrival. Former Associate Dean of the College Armando Bengochea had overseen the first-year seminar program from its inception before departing in 2006. Bengochea left before the restructuring took place.

"It was a dynamic year in the office," Valles said, adding that the first-year seminar program "was maintained at a really high level considering that."

"There is always learning going on in the first year," Valles said.

Despite this year's drop in enrollment, Valles said the University hopes to continue expanding the program towards an ultimate goal of having enough first-year seminars offered to accommodate every member of the freshman class.

"I actually think it's a good time" to expand the program, Valles said, noting the work of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, chaired by Bergeron, which released its preliminary report in January. "Attention is very much on those first couple of years of the undergraduate experience and what it is that we're providing."

As part of a "renewed" push to emphasize first-year seminars, the dean's office is providing course development funds this year for faculty interested in developing curricula for new first-year seminars, Valles said. There are currently "at least 20 proposals for brand-new first-year seminars" pending, he said.

The Office of the Dean of the College has also "worked hard to spread (first-year seminars) among the sciences" to diversify offerings, he said.

Faculty teaching first-year seminars agree that they have not sensed a decline in student interest. Marc Tatar, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, taught his seminar, BIOL 0190F: "Darwinian Medicine," this year for the fourth time, and he has consistently had 30 to 50 students trying to get into the class, he said.

Tatar also didn't notice any absence of encouragement for professors to offer the seminars.

"My department's always been really active in getting us involved in it, and that hasn't changed," he said. The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology offered four seminars this year with an average enrollment of 17 students.

"There's not enough of them," Tatar said, adding that it would be easy to fill an expanded array of first-year seminars as long as the new courses promised interesting topics.

Assistant Professor of Education Tracy Steffes, who has been working at Brown since July 2007, said she was drawn to the first-year seminar program because of her positive experience with such courses at Denison University, where she taught previously and where all freshmen are required to take first-year seminars.

She found good interest this spring for her seminar, EDUC 0410D: "Brown v. Board of Education," which has 15 students enrolled. She said she plans to teach the course again next year.

Timothy Empkie, assistant dean of medicine and clinical associate professor of family medicine, taught PHP 0030: "Health of Hispaniola," this year for the third time, registering an enrollment of 18 - his highest yet, he said. He designed and implemented the course largely on his own initiative, he said, and he hasn't noticed any substantial change in administrative involvement in promoting first-year seminars in past years.

Empkie's course is the only first-year seminar offered by the Department of Community Health this year, and he didn't know how active the department had been in promoting the courses.


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