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

June 28, 2007

University Honors: Leading the charge for high-ability students

by Anne Krapfl

Lay aside any perceptions you may have about university honors programs being elitist learning communities of sorts with intentionally limited access. At least, that's not the vision new administrative director Laurie Fiegel (FEE-gul) and faculty director Gene Takle (TOCK-lee) have for Iowa State's University Honors Program.

Absolutely, high-ability students want to know they're getting something extra when they pick their college or university, Fiegel said. But for a lot of reasons, an honors-type experience could be offered to more than the 439 freshmen enrolled in the Honors program for this fall, she said.

Takle noted that the Honors program has a history of piloting new concepts.

"(Former Honors director) Liz Beck will remind you that Honors pioneered the pass-no pass option, it pioneered the 499 independent research course," Takle said. "Honors will promote more research opportunities for undergraduate students, but we won't limit it to Honors students.

"We're looking to be the agent to provide advanced opportunities for all students," he said.

Research for undergraduates

Keeping pace with national trends in undergraduate education and because the ISU culture supports it, Takle said a top priority of the Honors program during the 2006-07 academic year was to develop an undergraduate research component. It included creating an assistant director position to focus on that, and it culminated with the first undergraduate research symposium April 11. Forty students -- not all Honors program students but representing all the undergraduate colleges -- summarized their research at the event.

"The intent was to provide an all-university showcase to share what's going on -- and to stimulate more of it," Takle said of the symposium.

Students who don't qualify to enroll in the Honors program still may thrive in what he called "discovery learning" in the lab, he said. Takle has required a research and thesis project of his senior meteorology students for the last 13 years, so he knows firsthand.

"You get a lot of bang for the buck with undergraduate students," he said. "They provide more flexibility to faculty because their commitment is on an hourly basis, not two or three years. And you find some really good fits with the researcher's interests."

He said the Honors program is working with vice president for research and economic development John Brighton's office to make undergraduate research a more common component of external research grants.

Retaining sophomores

In its current structure, Iowa State's freshman Honors program is coordinated centrally and relies on small groups and "high touch" for its success. In their sophomore, junior and senior years, Honors students participate in their home colleges' Honors programs, which Takle called "a mixed bag in how they all handle it." The result is that student participation numbers drop way off, by as much as 50 percent.

Early work on strategies that retain more sophomores in the college Honors programs is one of Fiegel and Takle's goals for the 2007-08 academic year.

Part of that will be to develop Honors coursework that addresses specific needs, for example, research methodologies, ethics and science, writing for research/scholarly purposes, or science in society. Some of these topics exist in ISU's curriculum, but they aren't focused on Honors students coming off their freshman year, Fiegel noted.

One possibility would be to pilot such an effort in a single college, Takle said.

Another basic requirement is to recruit more faculty and professional staff to offer Honors sections of sophomore-level courses, lead Honors seminars or serve as research mentors.

"It's very clear that the upper administration is supportive of us. We also need a cadre of faithful faculty within the colleges to be successful," Takle said. "Honors students' programs are all individualized, and moving students through them is labor-intensive. That comes down to buy-in from the faculty."

He said the campus community continues to support the Honors program. He expressed hope that under the new budget model, in which tuition revenues follow the students, departments and colleges will resist the temptation to drop Honors courses intended to have low enrollments so they can offer more large lecture-style classes.

Fiegel added, "The faculty we recruit have to have a passion for this."

An Honors College?

Takle said they're also re-examining the decision, several years ago, to migrate the post-freshman Honors experience out to the colleges.

"Is that the way we want to go?" he asked.

Another national trend is for universities to establish honors colleges, which is the tradition Fiegel comes from at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

There is a push at Iowa State to develop a four-year centralized Honors college that would work with all the other colleges to offer more opportunities for high-ability students. President Gregory Geoffroy has talked publicly about his desire to find a large private gift (tens of millions of dollars) to create an endowment for such a college.

"But we don't structure our day-to-day plans with that [honors college] in mind," Takle said. "We are looking for accomplishments along the way, every day.

"We're confident that the same things that get faculty buy-in will get donor buy-in -- things like more fellowships and scholarships for undergraduate students."

He said Iowa State also has a special opportunity to use the honors structure to promote undergraduate scholarship at a Research I university of science and technology. He participated in his first annual meeting of the National Collegiate Honors Council last fall and observed that many honors programs are dominated by the humanities and social sciences.

"At Iowa State, we have a lot of technical people and we also blend the disciplines so well," he noted. "We're strong in agriculture, engineering, the biological sciences, and we have social scientists as well.

"It's an advantage we have that I didn't see in most honors programs," he said.

Meet the directors

Takle and Fiegel

Gene Takle and Laura Fiegel

University Honors administrative director Laurie Fiegel arrived at Iowa State June 1 from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She had worked in Stony Brook's Honors College since 1996, and as administrative director of the college since 1998. Her academic background is in history, particularly recent American history. Fiegel oversees the day-to-day management of the Honors program.

University Honors faculty director Gene Takle was tapped in January 2006 to complete the appointment of former faculty director Ricardo Salvador. He will serve at least another year. An ISU faculty member since 1971 in atmospheric science and agricultural meteorology, he started a research/thesis program 13 years ago required of all senior meteorology students that has grown into a national success story.

Assistant director for undergraduate research and scholarship: Laura Merrick

Assistant director for freshman honors: currently vacant