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Honors Program introduces new gen ed courses

by Richard Veilleux - September 18, 2006

Olivier Morand has studied and taught economics for much of the past two decades, but he also has a longstanding interest in the environment.

So when University officials last year issued a call for faculty to create interdisciplinary general education courses for honors students - using nature as its theme - he leaped at the opportunity.

"There are a number of tie-ins between the economy and the environment, probably most obviously in the impact of production and consumption on the environment," he says.

"To produce goods, we need resources. And those resources have to be managed."

In response to the call for proposals, Morand, an associate professor of economics, drew up an outline for a course that would introduce honors students to those themes.

The course was one of several chosen for what Honors Program officials hope will become a smorgasbord of honors general education core courses large enough to allow all honors students the opportunity to include at least one such course in their undergraduate curriculum.

Three, including Morand's, are being offered this year, and at least two others are in development to be offered next year.

"The idea is to help students who may have had some exposure to economics in high school to approach the topic through a new lens. To repeat courses would be pretty routine for them, so this broadens the scope," says Jennifer Lease Butts, associate director of the Honors Program.

"Discussing and reading about how economics and nature interact is more interesting and engaging because of the interdisciplinary nature of the course."

Another of the courses, "Walden: A History," incorporates not two but three disciplines: it will be taught by a historian, a geologist, and a landscape artist.

"It's really a model American Studies course," says Robert Gross, the historian, who holds the Draper Chair of Early American History.

"We have a physical scientist, a social/cultural historian, and an artist - it incorporates the arts, humanities, and sciences."

Gross met Robert Thorson, the geologist, when the two were members of a task force that was convened shortly after Lynne Goodstein became director of the Honors Program to discuss ways to improve the program.

The artist, Janet Pritchard, an assistant professor of art and art history, met Thorson through their mutual research interests.

When the Provost announced the competition to design interdisciplinary honors courses, collaboration came naturally to the three faculty members.

Gross, who has written about Walden and Thoreau, says the book is a founding text of American environmentalism, as well as a classic of American literature; at the same time, it grows out of Thoreau's sojourn in a distinctive physical setting, which students and faculty can still experience first hand.

To understand the site, Thorson will walk the students through the distinctive woods surrounding the pond and guide their study of the Walden ecosystem in the long view of geology.

The environment that emerged from the earth's history is crucial, according to Gross, to what Thoreau sees and explores in his book - which, of course, is required reading.

The pond and woods also are among the most photographed sites in New England, offering spectacular vistas for Pritchard to explore.

"The course will take a broad look at the making of American environmental history," Gross says.

"Walden: A History," can accommodate 18 students in each section. Morand's class is limited to 18 students, as is the third interdisciplinary honors course offered this semester, "Music in Nature," which is taught by Glenn Stanley, professor of music.

The number of courses will have to grow fast to meet the need, as UConn's Honors Program continues to expand. More than 300 freshmen were brought into the program this year, compared to about 250 in each of the last two years.

Despite the growth, says Lease Butts, the average SAT score of the cohort remains around 1400, and students were ranked in the top 4 percent of their high school graduating classes.Thirty-nine were valedictorians or salutatorians.

"We have enough honors courses to handle the increase. Now we're looking ahead and planning for next fall," says Goodstein.

"The overall quality of the students is excellent."

The opportunity to teach top students can be a draw for faculty.

"One of the reasons I wanted to offer a core course was to attract more honors students into the (economics) department," says Morand.

"They're also interesting classes to teach. I hope to continue teaching economics and nature for a very long time."

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