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Freshman seminar helps put CALS students on path to success

During his guest lectures for Inter Ag 155 about the challenges of global food production and distribution, Alfred Hartemink likes to poll the students. Hartemink, a professor in the UW–Madison Department of Soil Science, asks, “How many of you have ever taken a soil science class?” This past fall, in a room full of timid first-year students, not a single hand went up.

While that may not be surprising, it illustrates the steep challenge that new students face when they start college and need to select an academic path. Not only is everything new and somewhat overwhelming, but there are many majors, academic options and extracurricular activities to choose from. Students may not hear much about some majors—such as food science, life sciences communication, or biological systems engineering—until relatively late in their academic careers.

Teaching assistant Brittany Rush, standing, helps students as they do group work in Inter Ag 155. Photo: Michael P. King

That’s where Inter Ag 155, a freshmen seminar course offered by the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), comes in. The course is designed to introduce new students to the various options they have at CALS and on campus.

“The guest speakers really showed us what CALS is all about with talks about topics like health, energy and agriculture. The opportunities for students in CALS really surprised me,” says Katherine Satori, a student who took the class in fall 2018.

In addition to helping students get oriented to CALS — where faculty and staff focus on food, health, biology, and the environment, as well as policy, economics and communication — the course serves many purposes. It is designed to help students understand the majors offered, the amount of work asked of them, how to develop study habits, how to manage their time and what resources are available on campus.

John Klatt teaches InterAg 155, a CALS freshman seminar course, in Sterling Hall. Photo: Michael P. King

“The idea of the seminars is to do all we can to make each student’s first semester as successful as possible,” says John Klatt, instructor for Inter Ag 155 and the CALS Assistant Dean of Student Development. “We want students to not only understand the options and opportunities in CALS but to also build a community here and find their place and their path.”

CALS is the only college on campus that requires every freshman to take a seminar course. While Inter Ag 155 is a popular option, students have a range of other seminar courses to choose from. Some departments offer their own freshman seminar courses, such as the biochemistry department. There’s also the new CALS QuickStart program, which students can take during the summer before their freshman year.

Inter Ag 155, which is offered each fall, is held in a special collaborative learning classroom, designed to enable small group discussion and work. Students sit in groups around long tables, each outfitted with a large screen, adapters for their computers and white boards. While the course includes some traditional lectures and guest speakers, a major focus of the class is group work.

Students look over a graphic related to Zika virus Inter Ag 155. Photo: Michael P. King

The main project is a case study, with groups working to develop research questions around their topic, explore disciplines that relate to their case study, and find both popular and scientific articles that address the issues. Students are given class time to work together on their case studies, with guidance from instructors.

“During the second half of the semester, project groups sat together,” says Satori. “This allowed for people to get to know others in CALS and the different paths people are taking within CALS.”

In addition to meeting classmates, the projects are a great opportunity for students to take a deep dive into a topic that’s current and affecting communities. In fall 2018, students explored a range of topics including the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance, the effects of Zika virus, and lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan.

At the end of the semester, each group of students presents their work to the class. “My project was about antibiotic resistance. I researched the costs to society, why progress has stalled on new antibiotic production and what the potential solutions are,” says Adam El-Hendy Gunnarsson, a student in the fall 2018 class who is majoring in biochemistry.

“I also really enjoyed the guest lecturers and, in particular, Alfred Hartemink’s presentation on how important soil is for the global food supply. It was eye-opening,” says El-Hendy Gunnarrson. “I learned about a wide variety of topics that pertain to current, real-world problems like food scarcity and environmental pollution and more. This class made me glad that I chose CALS.”