Will Honors Colleges Be the Last, Best Hope for Humanities and ‘Civic Education’?

Attacks on the humanities and social sciences have increased since the Great Recession, even at a time when the critical thinking skills associated with these disciplines are urgently needed to navigate the sometimes bizarre world of facts, alternative facts, distortions, and outright lies.

Indeed, with the decline of humanities departments, we might be nearing the time when honors colleges and programs will be the focal point of liberal arts education in many public universities. (Below is a discussion of what the nation’s largest honors college is doing to promote the humanities and “civic education.”)

The economic downturn along with rising college tuition costs forced many parents and prospective college students to zero in on courses of study that provide near-term financial results and security. The trend is so strong that, recently, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced a plan to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors.

These include English (excluding English for teacher certification); French; geography and geosciences; German; history (excluding social science for teacher certification); philosophy; political science; sociology; and Spanish.

Studies consistently show that voters with college degrees turn out in greater numbers than those with lower levels of education, but among college-educated voters it is likely that the type of coursework taken in college is an additional contributing factor to greater and more perceptive participation in civic life.

In the higher ed world, this link between education and civic engagement is known as the “civic education hypothesis.” A recent paper by Jacob Andrew Hester of the University of Alabama and Kari Lynn Besing of Indiana University argues persuasively that honors seminars, notably in the humanities and social sciences, “can and often do impart the civic skills that, the civic education hypothesis posits, enable political participation and lead to increased involvement in politics and civic life.”

Many public universities are unable to offer small, discussion-focused classes in these disciplines. The authors contend that larger lecture sections do not develop  “the classic skills associated with politics: language, rhetoric, public speaking, debate, and critical thinking.” Students can, however, develop these skills in an honors college or program that offers small seminar sections in Gen Ed courses.

Humanities and social science departments have for centuries sought to inculcate these “classic skills.” For years they have been losing faculty; now, with the elimination of majors, more faculty will be cut and course sections will be reduced, probably leading to larger classes with no opportunity for discussion. Where will these disciplines, with their manifold intersections, survive in a format conducive to civic education? Honors colleges and programs–and the mission is critical.

A paper by Larry Andrews of Kent State University speaks eloquently to the point:

“Honors education and the humanities share core values, including the importance of deep, sustained reading. Students of history, literature, and philosophy confront complex and demanding texts and develop sophisticated methods of analyzing these texts….Both humanities and honors value not only high levels of reading skill but thoughtful responses to texts and an ability to integrate them into broader knowledge, reaching toward not just learning but wisdom. Such habits run counter to the mindless consumption of infobits.”

Some of the brightest students are math, science, and engineering majors, and their numbers are on the rise. Their analytical skills are seldom in question–indeed, they are often amazing. But the classes in their majors offer little discussion and, as Hester points out, “Math courses [for example] rarely involve discussion or conceptualizing social issues, and very rarely if ever do math instructors connect the development of mathematical skills to political discourse.”

On the other hand, Hester and Besing write, the “University of Alabama (UA) Honors College has an explicit goal of developing ‘agents of social change.’ At the heart of the honors experience are three-hour, interdisciplinary, honors seminars for no more than fifteen students. To graduate with honors, UA students must complete no fewer than six hours of seminar credit, but often students complete more.

“In contrast to the traditional academic lecture, the skills developed in a seminar are uniquely suited for the development and application of citizenship behaviors. In particular, UA honors seminars stress discussion, reflection, writing, and debate, providing students the opportunity to practice each behavior in a controlled environment. Through the seminar experience, honors students are expected to engage the skill sets that produce interest and competence in public affairs more frequently than non-honors students.”

To test their hypothesis that honors programs can promote civic education, Hester and Besing surveyed University of Alabama Honors College students to answer the following question: “To what extent has your experience at this institution contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the following areas: Voting in local, state, or national elections?”

The conclusion: “Students who engage in a curriculum with more opportunities to develop civic skills are more likely to respond that their institution has contributed to their interest in voting. This finding lends support for the civic engagement hypothesis within the context of an honors education. Specifically, it suggests that students in the UA Honors College are more likely to respond that their education has contributed to their interest in voting. Similarly, our findings suggest that the amount of reading and writing in their curriculum positively correlates with students’ perception that their education has had an impact on their interest in voting.”

“Our argument is that seminar courses are likely to contribute to an honors student’s interest in participating in politics, but we do not believe that honors electives have the same effect. For example, an elective honors lecture course in accounting is likely to be more enriching than a non-honors version of the course but is not likely to build political skills in the same way that a seminar does.”

“On one side of the debate, policymakers, employers, and administrators extol the benefits of a STEM education, e .g ., technological innovation, expansion of research, and the financial payoffs of a labor force with robust science and mathematics skills. On the other side, classical theories of higher education argue that a college degree is about more than the development of a professional skill set on the way to a career; it is about the development of each individual’s ability to function as a citizen in a democratic society. An honors education provides a unique opportunity for higher education institutions to satisfy both sides of the debate, proving sufficient rigor for STEM students while also grounding students in the classical purposes of higher education.”

Advertisements

Goldwater Scholars 2017: Alabama, Iowa State Lead Publics, but Regional Publics Do Well

Each year, we provide an update of Goldwater scholarships won by public university students, and public universities did extraordinarily well in 2017, winning 128 out of 240  scholarships awarded this year. The percentage of scholars is down slightly from 2016, when 136 out of 252 scholars were from state universities. This year, there were also 307 honorable mentions.

The total number of scholarships has declined from 260 awarded in 2015, to 252 in 2016, and now to the 240 awarded in 2017.

The University of Alabama and Iowa State led publics with four scholars each, the maximum for any one school.

The following universities had three winners each: UAB, College of Charleston, Cincinnati, Ohio State, South Carolina, Tennessee, UT Dallas, Washington State, and UW Madison.

And those with two winners each are: Clemson, George Mason, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Miami Ohio, Michigan, UN Omaha, UN Reno, New College Florida, New Mexico, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte, Oregon State, Stony Brook, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Geneseo, UC Santa Barbara, Utah State, and West Virginia.

It is notable that more publics that are not flagships are seeing success with Goldwater awards. Two thoughts on this development: (1) honors colleges, emphasizing undergrad research, are growing in these colleges and (2) the faculties at these schools often have credentials than, in past decades, would have earned them an appointment at an elite university. These are reasons that New York Times columnist Frank Bruni can write an important book titled Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be. It helps to explain why Rhodes Scholars can now come from schools such as UW Eau Claire and UT Chattanooga.

The 2017 list of multiple winners above does include schools that are Goldwater leaders over time, with more than 40 awards total as of 2017: Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Georgia, Indiana, UNC Chapel Hill, South Carolina, and Alabama.

We provide this update each year because Goldwater scholars are all still undergraduates, and their selection is an indication of the undergraduate research opportunities at their universities. The Goldwater Scholarship is and amazing predictor of postgraduate success. 

Here’s evidence provided by the Goldwater Foundation: “Recent Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 89 Rhodes Scholarships, 127 Marshall Awards, 145 Churchill Scholarships, 96 Hertz Fellowships and numerous other distinguished awards like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.”

“The Goldwater Scholars were selected based on academic merit from a field of 1,286 natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering students nominated by the campus representatives from among 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide. Of those reporting, 133 of the Scholars are men, 103 are women, and virtually all intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective. Twenty-two Scholars are mathematics majors, 153 are science and related majors, 51 are majoring in engineering, and 14 are computer science majors. Many of the Scholars have dual majors in a variety of mathematics, science, engineering, and computer science.”

The one and two year scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

 

How Alive Are the Liberal Arts in Honors Programs?

The short answer: very alive.

After an extended period during which more and more students have felt the need–regardless of personal interest and aptitude–to major in business, engineering, or computer-related fields, the liberal arts, especially the humanities, have faced declining enrollment.

The impact that this trend has had on personal growth and enlightened participation in civic life is evident, given the tone and outcome of the presidential election.

In the meantime, several prominent public universities have endured attacks on their humanities departments and commitment to learning for learning’s sake, most notably UT Austin, Florida universities, and, very recently, UW Madison. Most states have dramatically reduced financial support for their universities; some regents have used the real or manufactured budget crisis as a pretext for attacking non-vocational disciplines.

But the liberal arts and, yes, the core humanities that are essential to the liberal arts, have survived in public honors colleges and programs. Some students express resentment that, in order to be in an honors program, they must take a series of interdisciplinary seminars and electives in the humanities. Under pressure from parents or highly focused on their chosen vocational discipline, they want “to  get on with it” and reach a point where they can start making real money and pay back those student loans.

This is understandable. But honors educators know that almost every bright student is in many ways unformed and searching for paths of meaning in their lives. One course in history, or philosophy, or literature, or maybe in religious studies or film, can guide a student toward a lifetime of serious inquiry, self reflection, and greater compassion for others. These and other courses in the liberal arts reinforce the application of informed judgment to facts that are often contradictory or in flux.

Consensus is emerging that for many students, “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.” Indeed, this is one of the two or three major advantages of honors programs. STEM majors who otherwise would take few liberal arts courses (and an extremely small number of humanities classes), must take them as members of a university-wide honors college or program.

But one other major–business–could likely benefit even more from greater exposure to the liberal arts and, again, to the humanities

Recent research shows that “critical thinking,” measured after adjusting for entrance test scores, shows the greatest gains for students in the liberal arts.  Engineering and technology students have high raw entrance test scores and strong critical thinking ability, but after adjusting for the effect of the high test scores, their critical thinking skills are relatively lower.

Business majors do not receive high raw or adjusted scores in critical thinking. Given that a plurality of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in business subjects, this is a matter of significant concern.

English is the discipline most offered by honors programs. This is so because many of the required English classes have a heavy writing component, often associated with the study of rhetoric. In these classes the humanities and vocational mastery come together in a way, for the most successful and most fulfilled professionals often have outstanding communication skills and a heightened sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of others.

So what are the “liberal arts”? The answer to this question varies, but here we will include the following disciplines, all of which are traditional core offerings in liberal arts colleges (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences):

Humanities: English, history, philosophy, fine arts, foreign languages, religious studies, film, classics. Sciences: math, biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Social Sciences: sociology, anthropology, gender studies, psychology, communications, political science, economics, and geography.

(One can see that many of these can be, and often are, “vocational” in themselves.)

Using the above as our “liberal arts,” we used data gathered for our most recent book, Inside Honors, which included 4,460 honors sections. Of these, we found that 59% were in the liberal arts, not counting interdisciplinary seminars, which accounted for another 26% of sections. Most of these seminars had a humanities focus, so about 85% of honors sections were in the liberal arts.

By discipline, English had the highest percentage of sections, even when sections in business, engineering, and technology are included. Math and business disciplines combined had about the same number of sections as English.

The STEM disciplines are strongly represented, however, accounting for 25% of honors sections. (But the science and math sections counted here are also part of the overall liberal arts group.)

Engineering and technology, considered separately, make up  8% of honors sections. Admittedly, the “regular” courses in these disciplines are usually rigorous enough in themselves.

Not all of the humanities are strongly represented, however, with classics, film, and religious studies combined counting for only 1.4% of honors sections. In fairness, the classics do feature prominently in many interdisciplinary seminars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Univ of Arkansas Honors College: Mentoring Leads to Publication

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Kendall Curlee, Director of Communications for the University of Arkansas Honors College, for assistance with this post.

One of the major strengths of honors colleges and programs is that they make undergraduate research opportunities a priority. Increasingly, early contact with distinguished professors is yielding not only better chances for entry to graduate and professional schools but also success with publication in prestigious academic journals.

At the University of Arkansas Honors College, Dr. Roger E. Koeppe II, a distinguished professor of chemistry, has now collaborated with several present and former honors college students on research projects that have led to publication.

His mentoring has been so successful that some of the students have themselves collaborated on more than one published paper.

Research That Could Lead Help the Fight with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease

“A University of Arkansas research team shed new light on the molecular properties that drive the nervous system. Their work was recently published in Biochemistry, one of the top journals in the field. Kelsey Sparks, an alumna of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and the Honors College, who is currently pursuing a medical degree at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, led the research effort as an undergraduate, working for three years on what became her capstone honors thesis.

“Sparks is the first author on the article, giving her primary credit for the discoveries. Other undergraduate coauthors were Fulbright and Honors College alumna and Sturgis Fellow Rebekah Langston, who currently holds a research position at the National Institutes of Health, and Renatra Gist, an alumna of Tennessee State University who completed a summer National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates at the U of A.

“Several of their findings were surprising: for example, some of the amino acids that could form hydrogen bonds with membrane lipids caused their host helices to move faster than their non-hydrogen bonding counterparts.

“You would think that hydrogen bonds would slow things down, since water is slower than gas,” Koeppe said. The team also discovered that peptide rotations are sensitive to changes in the thickness of membranes. The paper contributes to knowledge of the molecular properties that allow the nervous system to work, and ultimately could contribute to the understanding and treatment of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

“We’re working at the first level – the physics of it,” Koeppe cautioned. “We’re not developing medical products, but we’re trying to improve the basic understanding. The remarkable thing is that these undergraduate students were making discoveries in such a complex area. They’re at the forefront in this field.”

And More Work in a Related Area…

“A University of Arkansas research team has published a paper in ChemBioChem, a top European journal of chemical biology, based on groundbreaking experiments led by undergraduate honors student Armin Mortazavi. The paper contributes to the understanding of the molecular properties of membrane proteins, which play critical roles in cell signaling, both for diseased states and basic biological functions.

“It could be useful in understanding how proteins aggregate, which is characteristic of some neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s – but that’s long down the line at this point,” Mortazavi said. “Our main purpose is to understand how they interact in the body.”

“Mortazavi, from Hot Springs, is an honors chemistry and physics double major, a Bodenhamer Fellow, and the recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship. He is listed as first author on the article, giving him primary credit for performing the experiments that led to the discoveries.

“Mortazavi’s research builds on earlier work by honors student Kelsey Sparks, who studied the role aromatic rings play in the movement of the same family of peptides. Sparks was the first author on a paper published in 2014 in Biochemistry and is a coauthor on this paper.”

The Work to Understand Neurodegenerative Diseases Continues….

Jordana Thibado‘s honors research in Roger Koeppe’s lab began in her freshman year, and has paid off with her publication as first author in Biochemistry, one of the leading journals in its field.

Thibado’s paper, “Influence of High pH and Cholesterol on Single Arginine-Containing Transmembrane Peptide Helices,” shares two findings that contribute to the understanding of cell membrane properties, and in the long term, could inform treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Thibado is now pursuing a doctoral degree in physiology, biophysics and systems biology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University’s medical campus in New York City. In addition to Koeppe, a Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, coauthors include U of A doctoral student Ashley Martfeld and research associate professor Denise Greathouse.

“Upon completion of her doctorate, Thibado hopes to find a faculty position in biophysics or biochemistry and launch her own lab. Publishing research in Biochemistry will help her advance that goal: “It definitely felt great, especially after putting in four years of work, to see the research culminate in publication,” she said.

How Many of Those Honors Classes are Restricted to Honors Students Only?

Editor’s Note: Thanks to honors Deans and Directors from across the country, we received more data than ever before in 2016. Most of the data appear in our new book, but periodically we will report on other discoveries that we did not have time to include.

We have written about honors classes several times, having reported on average class sizes and the various types of honors class sections–honors seminars, honors-only classes in the disciplines, mixed honors classes (honors and non-honors students), and contract sections, in which honors students do extra work in a regular class for honors credit.

Before presenting data that show the percentage of class work honors students do in the various class types, here is a brief recap on the average class sizes of honors sections, based on actual, detailed data from 50 major honors programs:

  • Honors-only class section size= 19.0 students
  • Mixed sections for honors credit= 51.1 students
  • Contract sections for honors credit= 60.1 students
  • OVERALL average size of class sections for honors credit= 26.3 students

But now for the additional, unpublished data.

Since class sizes vary significantly according to the type of class section, here is a summary of the percentage of classroom time that honors students spend in the different section types:

  • In 22 of the 50 programs we rated, all honors credit sections were “honors-only” sections (no mixed or contract sections).
  • Across all 50 programs, 83.1% of enrollment time was in honors-only sections.
  • 13.6% of enrollment time was in mixed sections that included both honors and non-honors students. Many of these sections had separate honors-only breakout or lab components.
  • The remaining 5.1% of enrollment time was in contract sections, in which students in regular classes had to complete extra work for honors credit.

Honors-only classes may be seminars that are generally interdisciplinary, or more discipline-specific classes.

  • Our findings show that 45.8% of honors-only classes are seminars are interdisciplinary sections, which are typically offered through the honors college or program itself.
  • The remaining 54.2% of honors-only classes are centered on the academic disciplines, many offered directly by the academic departments.

 

 

Update: 2016 Edition of Honors Ratings and Reviews

By John Willingham, Editor

After three months of analyzing data, we are almost at the point of rating at least 50 honors programs, writing their profiles, and adding another 10 or so summary reviews (unrated).

What I can say now is that there will be some significant changes–and some surprises. We are running behind schedule, but I still hope for publication by late September.

Here’s why. The 2014 edition was a great improvement over the 2012 book. In 2012, I was so focused on the importance of honors curriculum and completion requirements, along with the glitz of prestigious scholarships (Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, etc.) that the first effort failed to drill deeply into the complexities of honors programs.

The 2014 edition moved the ball forward–about halfway downfield, or more–because I was able to obtain more information from honors deans and directors. I also studied class section data online and derived a lot of useful information about honors-only classes, including average class sizes and a general idea of the disciplines offered.

For the 2016 edition, I knew going in that I needed far more detailed information from the programs themselves to develop precise measures for all class sections (including mixed and contract sections). Fortunately, I have been working with that much better information. The result is that instead of listing the number of honors classes in, say, math, the 2016 edition will report how many sections there are in relation to the total number of honors students.

This approach will have a dramatic impact in some cases. For example, say that Program A has 4 honors math sections might have looked good in the 2014 edition; but if Program A has 1400 enrolled honors students, 4 sections do not look very strong.

Another difference will be in the rating for honors class size. In 2014, the most accurate ratings were for honors-only class sizes. But the fact is that many programs offer much of their honors credit via mixed and contract sections. Accurately measuring the class sizes for these sections is extremely difficult when using only the online data. Indeed, there is no section information about contract sections online. Approximately 60 percent of programs allow credit for honors contracts (basically, doing extra work in a regular section for honors credit). A few have use contracts extensively. The new edition will list the average size of contract and mixed sections (honors and non-honors students in the same class).

Finally, another major difference that will have an impact in 2016 is that the rating for honors housing will have a new dimension: one-third of the rating will now be based on the availability of housing space, in addition to the amenities and dorm layout.

So stay tuned!

Inside Honors: Class Sizes, Classes by Discipline, Sections Per Student

By John Willingham, Editor

I thought it was time to raise my head from the ocean of data I am crunching for the 2016 edition of our Review.

Since we have much more–and much better–data this time around, the book itself will be even more data-driven than its predecessors. We will still have narrative profiles for each program/honors college under review, but it’s likely that within each narrative there will be a table that summarizes our findings.

Here is some of what readers will see in the new edition:

Class Sizes–Instead of reporting only the average class size for honors-only classes, we will show, in addition to honors-only class sizes, the average class sizes for mixed sections (classes with honors credit but including some or many non-honors students), and even the class sizes for honors contract sections (regular classes in which honors students do extra work for honors credit). What I can say at this point is that the total class size metric will be based on a combination of the above. This change alone could result is some significant changes in our ratings.

Contract Sections–In the past, we have focused on regular honors sections, and we are somewhat tardy in giving some attention to a fairly widespread practice in honors education: contract sections. These are sometimes called honors options, honors enhancements, etc. As noted above, these sections generally feature an agreement between the honors student and instructor (as approved by honors staff) according to which the student does extra work to earn honors credit. In a few programs, honors contracts may account for more than 30% of the total honors class enrollment in a given term. The 2016 edition will present views on the relative value of these types of classes. There are many pros, as well as some cons. Stay tuned.

Course Offerings, by Academic Department–In the 2014 edition, we tried to give readers an idea of the general range and type of honors classes offered by each honors college or program. Although we did approximate estimates of honors classes by academic discipline, I thought that that aspect of the 2014 ratings was surely the most subjective. This time around, the number of classes by discipline will be strictly quantified so our readers can know how many honors sections are available, and in a ratio to total honors participants.

Courses in “Key” Disciplines–It goes without saying that one person’s choice of “key” academic disciplines will probably not be the same as another person’s choice. What we plan to do is emphasize the classes in disciplines that we believe should be offered by honors programs, regardless of how popular the discipline might be as a major. For example, relatively few college students major in philosophy and many students (and parents) might not place much “value” on courses in that discipline. But honors students are supposed to be different–more motivated, more curious, more open, and more capable of in-depth critical thinking. From the more obviously practical perspective, we also place speech and communications classes in the key group. (One reason we favor small classes for honors students is that those classes typically require students to develop argumentation and group communication skills.)

Other “key” disciplines that we will quantify are biology; business and related disciplines; chemistry; computer science and related disciplines; economics; English; engineering; history; math; physics; political science; psychology; and anthropology/sociology.

So, if you want to know how many honors chemistry sections a program offers, or how many of those relatively scarce honors polysci, econ, or physics sections are available, we will tell you how each program stacks up.

Univ of Arkansas Honors Student and Prof Publish Paper on Proteins Related to Alzheimer’s

Editor’s Note: The post below comes to us from Kendall Curlee, director of communications at the University of Arkansas Honors College.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A University of Arkansas research team has published a paper in ChemBioChem, a top European journal of chemical biology, based on groundbreaking experiments led by undergraduate honors student Armin Mortazavi. The paper contributes to the understanding of the molecular properties of membrane proteins, which play critical roles in cell signaling, both for diseased states and basic biological functions.

“It could be useful in understanding how proteins aggregate, which is characteristic of some neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s – but that’s long down the line at this point,” Mortazavi said.

Armin Mortazavi and faculty mentor Roger Koeppe examine deuterium magnetic resonance (NMR) results. Photo: Matt Reynolds.

Armin Mortazavi and faculty mentor Roger Koeppe examine deuterium magnetic resonance (NMR) results. Photo: Matt Reynolds.

“Our main purpose is to understand how they interact in the body.”

Mortazavi, from Hot Springs, is an honors chemistry and physics double major, a Bodenhamer Fellow, and the recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship. He is listed as first author on the article, giving him primary credit for performing the experiments that led to the discoveries. Roger Koeppe, Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, is Mortazavi’s faculty mentor and director of the study.

The paper is titled “Juxta-Terminal Helix Unwinding as a Stabilizing Factor to Modulate the Dynamics of Transmembrane Helices.” The U of A team used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to alter the amino acid sequences of model peptides and incorporated deuterium labels to study how the peptides move within a model for the outer membrane of a cell.

Mortazavi’s research builds on earlier work by honors student Kelsey Sparks, who studied the role aromatic rings play in the movement of the same family of peptides. Sparks was the first author on a paper published in 2014 in Biochemistry and is a coauthor on this paper.

Previous work in Koeppe’s lab found that a similar peptide helix might be unwound or “frayed” at the end. Mortazavi has confirmed that there are multiple peptides that fray at the end, limiting their extent of motion and helping to anchor them within a lipid membrane.

“What Armin has found suggests that there may be more importance to the loops within membrane signaling proteins, which have largely been ignored up to now,” Koeppe said. “His work may point us in a new direction.”

Mortazavi presented his work at the 2015 meeting of the Biophysical Society and will present his latest results at the February 2016 meeting in Los Angeles.

Koeppe has mentored more than 25 honors students, with six of them publishing their research.

“To this point, I’ve not had a student publish before they graduate,” he said. “Armin started research early, in his freshman year. ­He’s well organized, dedicated, hardworking, and he’s produced a lot of results.”

Mortazavi’s work has been supported by a State Undergraduate Research Fellowship and Honors College research and travel grants. Other members of the research team who are coauthors on the article are graduate student Venkatesan Rajagopalan and research associate professor Denise V. Greathouse.

About the Honors College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and unites the university’s top undergraduate students and professors in a learning environment characterized by discovery, creativity and service. Each year the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman fellowships that provide $70,000 over four years, and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad grants. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth classes, and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students’ academic interests, with interdisciplinary collaborations encouraged. Fifty percent of Honors College graduates have studied abroad – three times the national average – and one hundred percent of Honors College graduates have engaged in mentored research.

Arkansas Honors College Students Publish in Peer-Reviewed Journals

Editor’s note: The following article is from the University of Arkansas. My thanks to Kendall Curless of the Honors College for sending it along.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas have established that pits and scratches on the teeth of mammal fossils give important clues to the diet of creatures that lived millions of years ago. Two new studies, both involving undergraduate Honors College students, analyze the effect of environmental change on the teeth of existing species, and may shed light on the evolutionary fossil record.

Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor and chair of the anthropology department, mentored the students and is a coauthor on both papers.

Both studies compare dental wear of species in environments that are relatively undisturbed to those in environments that have been disturbed by human development.

“Human disturbance, from an ecological perspective, is not a great thing, but for folks like me, they’re really cool natural experiments,” Peter Ungar said. “If we can understand the reaction of living animals, including primates, to environmental change, then we can apply that to the past, to understand evolution. Conversely, we can use our understanding of how things change on evolutionary time scales to get a better appreciation for our effects on the environment today.”

Tracking Lemurs in Madagascar

The paper “Mechanical food properties and dental topography differentiate three populations of Lemur catta in southwest Madagascar” was recently accepted by the Journal of Human Evolution, the premier journal in the field.

Emily Fitzgerald (B.A. in anthropology, magna cum laude, ’12) and Andrea Riemenschneider (B.A. in anthropology, cum laude, ’13), who were undergraduate honors students at the time, used data collected in Madagascar by Frank Cuozzo and Michelle Sauther. Since 2003 Cuozzo and Sauther have caught and made molds of the teeth of ring-tailed lemurs across a variety of habitats.

Building on research by first author Nayuta Yamashita, Fitzgerald and Riemenschneider made high-resolution casts of the molds, then used a laser scanner to make 3-D models of the teeth, which they analyzed using global-information system software. Their findings confirmed different patterns of wear in different settings.

Lemurs in disturbed areas were most heavily impacted, wearing their teeth “down to nubbins – we’re not entirely sure why,” Ungar said. This finding could help scientists interpret wear-related tooth shape changes more generally.

ComparinG Capuchin and Howler Monkeys in the Brazilian Amazon

In “Environmental Perturbations Can be Detected Through Microwear Texture Analysis in Two Platyrrhine Species From Brazilian Amazonia,” recently published in the American Journal of Primatology, Almudena Estalrrich, a doctoral exchange student from Spain, and Mariel Williams Young (B.A. in anthropology and Spanish, magna cum laude, with a minor in psychology, ’13), then an undergraduate Honors College student, analyzed the effects of habitat variation on capuchin and howler monkeys.

Each species was sampled from environments ranging from minimally disturbed to an area that had been deforested with the construction of a hydroelectric dam.

Young used a confocal microscope to zoom in on a very small part of the tooth – the wear area where the upper and lower teeth come into contact. The team predicted that capuchins, which eat nuts and berries, would be more impacted by environmental disturbance than howler monkeys, which eat leaves.

Their findings confirmed this prediction, and established that dental microwear texture analysis is an effective tool to detect subtle differences in diets among living primates. Studies like this one, which use well-documented specimens with differences in habitats, suggest that subtle changes in microwear may shed light on habitat-forced diet changes in the fossil record.

Peter Ungar has worked with dozens of Honors College students in the past 20 years, and several have published their undergraduate research in peer-reviewed journals.

“Honors students are bread and butter for me,” Ungar said. “I couldn’t get done what I get done, research-wise, without their help.”

“It feels great to have a publication early in my career,” said Mariel Young, who completed a master’s degree in human evolutionary studies at Cambridge and is now pursuing a doctoral degree in human evolutionary biology at Harvard. Young was awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and NSF Graduate Fellowship, and credits her success to research with Ungar: “These two awards have had a huge impact on my career, and my initial research at U of A in Dr. Ungar’s lab is definitely what set me on the path toward achieving them.”

“We’re very proud of these three alumni, and pleased that, yet again, undergraduate thesis research conducted by our Honors College students has been published in top journals,” said Lynda Coon, dean of the Honors College.

About the Honors College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and unites the university’s top undergraduate students and professors in a learning environment characterized by discovery, creativity and service. Each year the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman fellowships that provide $70,000 over four years, and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad grants. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth classes, and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students’ academic interests, with interdisciplinary collaborations encouraged. One hundred percent of Honors College graduates have engaged in mentored research.

 

UW-Madison Engineering Receives $47 Million from Grainger Foundation

Two major grants from the foundation of UW-Madison engineering alumnus David W. Grainger will boost research and hands-on teaching capacity and provide additional support in the form of tutoring and mentoring for undergrads.

A grant of $25 million is for the establishment of the Grainger Institute for Engineering Research. The Institute ” will serve as an incubator for trans-disciplinary research conducted in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering. Such research will enable the College to lead discoveries in targeted technological areas important to society and to our nation’s economy.”

The enhancement of hands-on training and research facilities has become a major feature of leading engineering programs in the nation.

“Currently, researchers in the Institute are focusing on advanced manufacturing and materials discovery and sustainability—areas that build in existing strengths within the College of Engineering and at UW-Madison. These three areas share commonalities and each benefit from close interaction with the others. Together, they provide opportunities to accelerate the process of materials discovery to application or use in a product, and to engage in this process in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.”

At a time when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has led successful efforts to cut funding for the UW System, the grant for the Institute “will create an endowment for professorships, faculty scholar awards and postdoctoral fellowships, with additional support for new faculty from UW-Madison, the UW-Madison Vilas Trust, and the College. In total, the funding will enable the College to hire 25 new faculty. This commitment will enable the College to attract clusters of top engineering faculty to define new research directions through the Grainger Institute for Engineering.”

Another $22 million grant from the foundation “will be aimed at helping undergraduate students by supporting a tutoring center and giving them more opportunities for hands-on learning,” officials announced recently.

The donation endows the engineering school’s undergraduate learning center, “which provides tutoring and peer-to-peer learning services — assistance officials said is key for students as they work through tough introductory courses

The donation will help to expand engineering college facilities will as well, including a new ‘design innovation makerspace,’ where students will be able to use equipment such as laser cutters and 3-D printers to experiment and build prototypes.”

The foundation has also funded the building and expansion of Grainger Hall, home of the UW-Madison business school.