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Marvin Marshak, physics professor

Physics professor Marvin Marshak, the new faculty director of the Office for Undergraduate Research, takes a global perspective in introducing students to the joys of discovery.

A sea change in campus culture

New initiatives put undergraduates in the spotlight--and the driver's seat

By Deane Morrison

March 30, 2007

As an aspiring electrical engineer, freshman Tahnee Zerr is excited that the University is making good writing as integral to her studies as good wiring. "No matter what you do in life, you will need to be able to communicate clearly," says Zerr. "Not everybody's an engineer. I can't just use formulas to explain things." And the writing initiative isn't the only way the University is improving life for undergraduates on the Twin Cities campus. From more opportunities to study abroad or perform research, to more and closer contacts with advisers, the University is pulling out all the stops to change the very atmosphere on campus. The overhaul represents "a genuine culture change in the way the University structures the undergraduate experience for students," says Craig Swan, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. The change won't be cosmetic; rather, it will be tangible and even intrusive, in the sense that the University will actively help students take responsibility for their own learning and forge their own path to both scholarly and personal success.

The overhaul represents "a genuine culture change in the way the University structures the undergraduate experience for students," says Craig Swan, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

For example, regardless of major, all students will be expected to master not only a body of knowledge but skills in communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving. At the same time, they will be guided to become responsible, resilient, self-confident adults who appreciate the differences among people. Much of the help will come from advisers. Generally, U freshmen work with a professional academic adviser in their college; then, as they declare a major, they may switch to a faculty adviser or have one of each. Now, the University is developing campuswide training and materials for all advisers. "We want everybody to have the same information and the same opportunities," says Laura Coffin Koch, associate vice provost for undergraduate education. "We want to make sure students get consistent and timely information in all colleges." Advisers will help students find not only the right courses but also opportunities for performing research, studying abroad, or getting involved in other activities that will allow them to grow in maturity and confidence as well as in academic knowledge.

With Marvin Marshak, students always win

Few people have done more for students than physics professor Marvin Marshak, the new faculty director of the Office for Undergraduate Research.

The founding director of Residential College--the U's first living-learning program--and a Morse-Alumni Award-winning teacher, he likes to draw students into the academic life by taking them to big physics experiments everywhere from northern Minnesota to Europe.

But while his door is always open to students, he prefers conversations at the Rec Center.

"I play racquetball with students," says Marshak. "They win, and I get exercise chasing 20-year-olds around the court."

Also an avid bicyclist, Marshak grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University, where he wrote for the student paper. One week, just before a big Cornell-Princeton basketball game, Marshak and other newspaper staffers went to Princeton and replaced all the copies of the Princeton student paper with bogus editions predicting the demise of the Princeton team and its shining star, Bill Bradley.

Marshak is married to Anita Kolman, an artists' representative. They have two children: Rachel, a bond trader in New York; and Adam, a history graduate student at Yale.

The dual emphasis on making sure its graduates shine both intellectually and personally sets the University apart and aims for a central outcome: alumni with all the tools of citizenship and the capacity to use them. Then and now One alumnus who appreciates the changes is Mark Lescher, who graduated with a degree in psychology 10 years ago. "I love the idea of the writing initiative and more aggressive advising," he says. "I was able to avoid having to talk to an adviser, except when I chose to. At the time, it helped me feel like an independent adult, but in retrospect, I might have gotten through the U earlier, especially if I'd had more of a 'goal' focus with respect to graduate school." As an undergraduate, he says, it was hard to find out much more about graduate schools than the required GPA and prerequisites. In 2002, Lescher returned to the U and earned a bachelor's degree in architecture; he is now pursuing a master's degree in the College of Design. Advising in the School of Architecture is very good, he says: "They seem more proactive than when I was here before." Lescher likes the idea of the writing initiative because, as a person who took several writing courses on his own, he clearly sees its value. Students like Lescher and Zerr will benefit further from a $996,000 Bush Foundation grant, awarded to the University in March, to help make good writing an integral part of work toward every undergraduate degree. A head start All freshmen are getting an early boost to their careers as university students. Several programs already help, such as the Nature of Life program, which takes incoming College of Biological Sciences freshmen to the University's Lake Itasca Field Station in August and gives them a rigorous introduction to the life of a biologist. On deck for 2007 is the Bridge to Academic Excellence, a free six-week program, starting in June, for about 80 incoming freshmen identified as in need of extra support. They will take one writing and one science course, tallying six credits by the time they begin fall semester classes. Starting in fall 2008, a campuswide Welcome Week, held the week before fall semester, will reach the entire freshman class. "Welcome Week will focus on getting students acclimated to their college, the University, and the community," says Koch. Besides receiving tips on navigating the University, freshmen will be encouraged to start thinking about how to take advantage of such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities as studying abroad, completing a degree with honors, or doing research with a faculty member and perhaps seeing their work published. Expanding horizons To keep students on track toward meeting goals in both academics and personal growth, the University will work hard to give every student at least one experience with a mentor before graduating. Besides giving them study, research, or service opportunities, mentors will help students reflect on their experiences and realize the progress they've made. For example, an undergraduate doing research may find herself learning how to schedule her time, set goals, and deal with the ambiguity and sometimes outright failure that every research scientist inevitably encounters. For students like Sarah Tupy, a junior chemical engineering major doing research in the laboratory of world-renowned Regents Professor Lanny Schmidt, the chance to work with a passionate, brilliant researcher is not to be missed. "Lanny's work is innovative, cutting-edge," says Tupy. "I plan to attend graduate school ... and my experience in the lab has stimulated my enthusiasm for a career in research." To encourage students to take advantage of such opportunities, the University is streamlining research programs. In February physics professor Marvin Marshak became the faculty director of the new Office for Undergraduate Research. It will include the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and will connect with undergraduate research programs housed in colleges and elsewhere in the University. "Now, about 25 to 30 percent of graduating students have had some sort of research experience," says Marshak. "Our working goal is to get about half of undergraduates to have one by the time they graduate." If research is exciting, research in a foreign country can be even more enticing.

Ten years of progress

Between 1996-97 and 2006-07, the undergraduate experience saw many changes, including online registration, a switch from quarters to semesters, a remodeled Coffman Union, more on-campus living quarters, and numerous changes in curricula. The difference between then and now shows up in many ways:

>Percentage of freshmen living on campus rose from 71.1 to 80.6

>Percentage of students rating the overall quality of academic programs as excellent or good rose from 37.4 to 64.4

>Percentage of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class rose from 28 to 38.7

>Four-year graduation rate rose from 15.2 to 40.7 percent

A pdf with these and more statistics is available.

"We need to expand the opportunities to do undergraduate research abroad," says Kathleen Sellew, associate director of the Office of International Programs. "We think making international opportunities an integral part of existing structures such as UROP or the honors program would be a good idea. We strive for 50 percent of students having a study abroad experience, and offering more research options can only increase the relevance of the program abroad to the undergraduate experience." Pursuing a degree with honors is another option for students who want to stretch their minds in new directions. By fall 2008, the honors programs now housed in individual colleges will be merged into a single campuswide University Honors Program under its founding director, physics professor Serge Rudaz. Academic excellence is, of course, central to the mission of the Honors Program, with the goal of helping students learn how to think like the best minds in their field of study. "They will be exposed to new perspectives through carefully crafted curricula and to a variety of opportunities to sample the intellectual life of the University, think for themselves, and apply what they have learned," Rudaz says. "We want to be proactive in taking students who are highly motivated and present them with every opportunity for growth." Smoothing the way Beginning this fall, students will be able to find information and resources through a new Web portal and will chart their progress toward graduation with a Web-based Graduation Planner. Also in the works is the Engagement Planner, another Web tool, which will help students find nonacademic activities such as arts, politics, and social service organizations that appeal to them while building character and broadening perspectives. Students looking for academic help can drop in one of the new SMART Learning Commons centers. The SMART Commons also house the Peer Assisted Learning Program, which provides students who lead group study on topics connected with specific courses. Now located in Wilson Library, Klaeber Court, and Magrath Library, the Commons will soon open a new branch in Walter Library. The University is also moving full speed ahead to supply new sources of financial support, such as the Founders Free Tuition Program and the Promise of Tomorrow scholarships. The ultimate reward for its efforts will be the trust that its graduates have achieved a command of knowledge and critical thinking skills, an appreciation of other cultures, the ability to communicate clearly, and all the other attributes necessary for citizens of a rapidly changing world.

Read more about writing

Learn about the University's writing initiative and the new Bush Foundation grant.