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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

March 11, 2005

Making a good student experience even better

by Anne Krapfl

The goal is to take a respected, nationally known freshman honors program and extend that student experience through to graduation.

"Iowa State has a very well-developed freshman honors program. It's fairly intensive and includes lots of community building and unique academic experiences," said Ricki Shine, administrative director of the University Honors Program. "But after the first year, unfortunately, our students kind of fall off a cliff.

"We would like to, and central administration has encouraged us to, better develop the program for sophomores, juniors and seniors."

About 1,300 high-ability Iowa State students currently participate in honors programs. Approximately 400 are in the freshman honors program and the rest are sprinkled throughout the colleges and class levels.

The honors program for freshmen, started in 1977, is administered centrally. It includes honors sections (with limited class sizes) of first-year courses, a research mentoring program spring semester, optional honors housing and lots of co-curricular or extra-curricular activities such as retreats, social outings, informal dinners with faculty and participation in intramural sports.

Colleges have administered their own honors program since 1960 -- focusing on sophomores, juniors and seniors for the last 28 years. Sophomores with a GPA of at least 3.35 apply to be associate members. Shine said about half of freshman honors students opt to do this. Students who maintain a 3.35 GPA as juniors may apply for full membership in their college honors programs, and put together individual programs of study. Honors students are allowed to make adjustments to the required course list to match their interests and stated goals.

"Obviously, some majors are more flexible than others," Shine said. "Often, that has to do with certification requirements, for example, in the field of education."

Honors students enroll in honors courses and courses with optional honors components. They also may turn any course into an honors course -- with the cooperation of the teacher and by outlining, fairly early in the semester, additional or in-depth work to be completed.

Shine noted that one common thread in the upper grade levels is the honors project, typically a research effort of about a year that includes a poster presentation at its conclusion.

"Until they do their senior project, there's not a lot of commonality to what they're doing after their freshman year," Shine said.

Changes ahead

Several groups are working to suggest changes to the system. Last May, a task force chaired by Thomas Andre, curriculum and instruction, submitted recommendations to President Gregory Geoffroy regarding high-ability students at Iowa State, including honors students.

Since fall, Shine and agronomy professor Ricardo Salvador, faculty director of the honors program, along with five faculty members and two honors students, have been looking at "everything" related to Iowa State's honors program. By March 11, the committee will submit to associate provost David Holger its recommendations for changes that could be implemented "fairly quickly and within the existing honors structure."

"Our goal is to recommend changes that will move us toward making the honors program at Iowa State a well thought-out, comprehensive, student experience," Shine said. "There are some cultural barriers to a more successful honors program. I think we can be more collaborative."

Not all high-ability students elect to be in the honors program, Shine said. "Some apparently see it more as a complication than an opportunity, and that's something we hope to change."

She also is an advocate of financial incentives for faculty who put in extra time with honors students.

"Most of what they do now for our students is from the kindness of their hearts. With the increasing pressures on their time and departmental budgets, it shouldn't be that way," Shine said. (Honors sections of courses are covered by the departments who offer them. Faculty or P&S staff who volunteer to teach honors seminars receive a $500 professional development grant.)

It is getting harder, she noted, to recruit faculty to develop honors components for courses or serve as research mentors.

Better than teaching

Shine thinks she has one of the best jobs on campus. Initially trained as a lawyer, she worked in real estate law in Phoenix until that market dried up in the late 1980s. She went to graduate school at Northwestern University because she wanted to teach. She studied U.S. history, earning a master's degree and completing coursework for a Ph.D.

Involved in one of the first "Preparing Future Faculty" pilot programs in the country at Northwestern, she was encouraged to apply for an honors program coordinator post at Northeastern Illinois University in1996. She got the job and loved the work.

"It occurred to me that faculty, for the most part, have pretty short-term relationships with their students," she said. "In this job, it's a longer relationship. Over four or five years, you really see students grow and mature and develop.

"As it turns out, this is the best job for me."

Shine first came to Iowa State in August 2000, and was the assistant director of the honors program until she had the chance, in January 2002, to create a secondary honors program at The State University of New York at Buffalo. She returned to Iowa State 18 months ago.

Honors benchmarks

Shine is familiar with some of the top honors programs in the country. She is active in the National Collegiate Honors Council, currently serving on its executive committee.

A growing phenomenon, she said, is for honors programs to receive college status, such as the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State or the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State. Honors students belong both to the honors college and an academic college.

"I don't know if that is the direction Iowa State will go," she said. Honors colleges don't actually have their own faculty, but they do have a dean at the table when academic program decisions are made. They also tend to attract more private funding and thus are able to offer more to their honors students, she said.

One hallmark of the best honors programs is lots of flexibility within the curriculum.

"Students' programs of study really reflect their goals and interests, and the honors system really works for the students," she said.

"We'd like to create something at Iowa State that works better for our students. Our focus is on their experience, and that's what's enticing about this job."

Ricki Shine

Ricki Shine was named administrative director of the University Honors Program last summer. Agronomy professor Ricardo Salvador is the faculty director. Photo by Bob Elbert.