The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
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In Pursuit of the Next Good Question

Thriving on curiosity -- that's the way faculty researchers go about their business. And the College's new Quest courses for freshmen and sophomores aim for the same exhilarating experience.

By Kathy Quinn Thomas

Real-world engineers work collaboratively at solving problems in research and development. So do these freshman Quest students, who are learning from and with each other.

As the rain bangs on the windows of a room on the top floor of Morey Hall, Professor Rosemary Kegl is handing back the first draft of her students' research papers. The course is English 192Q, "Rochester, N.Y."

A specialist in 16th and 17th century English literature (and additionally in contemporary Marxist and feminist literary theory), Kegl is also rapidly becoming an expert on the University's home city. So, too, are her students in this class: English 192Q is one of the new breed of "Quest" courses designed to introduce beginning scholars to the ways in which faculty members discover and build knowledge. In other words, how research works as a way of learning.

Open to freshmen and first-semester sophomores in the College, "Q" courses teach problem-solving through the extensive use of original materials and data -- doing so in small exploratory classes with plenty of conversation and collaboration among participants and teachers.

Students in Kegl's "Rochester" Quest, for instance, are collaboratively digging into local history, politics, and culture via on-site explorations of such area attractions as historic houses and local museums, and with a neighborly trek through Victorian Mt. Hope Cemetery as an important adjunct.

In today's class session, students are learning one of the basic tenets of a professional researcher's life: "Once done is half begun."

"You'll get a grade for revising as well as for writing the papers," Kegl reminds the class, as she hands back the first versions of their reports. "The second grade will be based on the substantive work you do in reworking and reorganizing.

"You know," she adds with a smile, "even if you get a good grade the first time around, there are always ways to improve." Judging from the number of comments scrawled on the pages by their study partners, the students will have plenty of fodder for revision.

Rethinking your work this way is what William Scott Green, dean of the Undergraduate College and one of the creators of Quest, calls "recursion," an important component of the learning process in this special category of courses. By taking a long, hard second look, he says, students can better digest the material and come to more solid conclusions.

"Quest is a process our students learn of organizing, focusing, sifting through what's important," Kegl adds. For example, her first-year scholars have visited the restored homes of two of Rochester's most prominent citizens -- women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony and Kodak tycoon George Eastman.

Part of the "processing" of the information the students took in from these visits surfaces during a lively classroom discussion about the differences between the two houses and what they might have to say about their inhabitants.

"We didn't see much at all about Anthony's private life," a student offers. "It looked as though her private life was her political life. There weren't many personal artifacts."

"Yes," agrees a classmate. "At Eastman's house we saw so much about his love for his mother, and his hobbies, like hunting -- the personal things."

"That's right," chimes in another. "Didn't Susan have a personal life?"

Discussions on feminism, corporate public relations, radical politics, and approaches to curating house museums ensue. Most of the students appear absorbed in the subject matter and able not only to remember what they saw, but to use that information as a springboard to insights into human nature.

Quest was initiated in the fall of 1995 as a way of helping undergraduates sidestep the painful process of trial and error they usually go through in developing research skills. As such, it is one of the curricular reforms that are a centerpiece of the five-year Rochester Renaissance Plan designed to strengthen and refocus the University's core programs in arts and sciences and in engineering.

Development of the Quest program is supported by a $100,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation of Menlo, California. Rochester was selected for the award under a program that supports innovative initiatives that are designed, as the foundation puts it, "to introduce freshmen and sophomores to how knowledge is made and human experience understood."

"Researchers thrive on curiosity," Green says. "Their interest in their subjects and their commitment to their questions are primal forces that sustain their intellectual lives.

"Since the freedom to follow curiosity is the prime motivator of the faculty's learning," he adds, "we believe that it should work for undergraduates as well. Professors at research universities are often depicted as indifferent to undergraduate education, and research itself has been cast as the enemy of good undergraduate teaching.

"We have turned our strength as a research institution into a plus: Our students develop not just the ability to understand, but they become proficient at in-depth learning."

Because of the Quest program's emphasis on small classes, enrollment in each course is limited. Participants aren't necessarily chosen for their academic prowess (after all, aren't they all bright?), but for their individual talents, interests, and experience as well.

"Q" courses are open across disciplines: Students from any academic area may take a course in any other academic area. A future engineer, for instance, might dip into Imperial Rome in the "I, Claudius" Quest that examines the social history of the days of the Caesars while asking fundamental questions about the nature of history itself.

Or a fledgling literary scholar might experiment with "The Economic Way of Thinking," an opportunity to take part in far-reaching conversations on such mundane but ultimately puzzling topics as why shopping carts are larger now than they were 20 years ago, or why dry cleaners charge more for women's clothing than for men's.

Regardless of where they come from academically, students are expected to learn how to construct knowledge by developing the basic skills of inquiry as described in the Quest prospectus:

Whether they're majoring in biochem or classics, "Questers" are expected to learn how to construct knowledge by developing the basic skills of inquiry.

End of inquiry? Not at all. At this point the accomplished Quester should be ready to take on what may be the most important query of all:

The world's their oyster -- or at least their lab. Students on an "Air Pollution" Quest gather samples from around town, then use electron microscopy to see what they've got.

"It would be a lot easier if we simply handed them a textbook and told them to learn what's in it," whispers Brian McIntyre, a laboratory engineer from the Institute of Optics, who is sitting in the back of a lecture room in Dewey Hall. The class going on in front is Chemistry 103Q, "Air Pollution: An Engineering Perspective," taught by chemistry professor Richard Heist with McIntyre as co-teacher.

"These courses," McIntyre goes on, sotto voce, "take more time and planning for all of us -- students and teachers alike -- but we all enjoy it more." (Which, not so incidentally, is one of the important points of the program. "We want you to have fun learning, just as our faculty members enjoy doing their research," reads the Quest prospectus.)

About a dozen students, evenly divided between men and women, listen to Heist explain what they will have to do over the next few weeks as they go about finding out for themselves just how much -- and what kind -- of air pollution they experience in their everyday haunts. Their assignment: Take samples from various sites on and off campus, bring them back to the lab, and analyze their chemical composition to see what they've got. (That's where McIntyre comes in -- to share his technical expertise with the scanning electron microscopy they'll be using in the analysis.)

"You'll need to get started on this right away," Heists says from the front of the room to the tiered rows of students. "If you leave it all till the last minute, you won't have time to sit back and think about the data you get. Examining the samples under the microscope, I guarantee you, will be fascinating," he says, his eyebrows lifting to make his point. "Then you'll have to make a story out of what the data tell you."

The Chem 103Q students, he tells them, will be fanning out to take air samples from such varied sites as pastoral Mendon Ponds Park, the busy urban intersection of Lake Avenue and Ridge Road next to Kodak Park, and various spots on the River Campus from the Wilson Commons "Pit" to a Gavett Hall lab to a library copier room notorious for its "bad air."

Heist asks for volunteers to form the sampling groups. "All of your colleagues will depend on you and your data. Don't let them down," he cautions. "If your sample is taken outside, make sure you record everything -- the direction of the wind, the weather itself, the time of day. . . ."

Participants will learn science research skills with this project, McIntyre notes -- and, fascinated with the subject matter of their own environment, these freshmen might not be aware that they're learning skills at all.

"But they'll always have those basic scholarly tools," he predicts. "Whether they go directly to the working world or on to graduate school and research, this stuff is invaluable."

Heist and McIntyre's undergraduates are learning to work in the same way professional researchers do, Dean Green says. "Faculty learning is more conversational and collaborative than typical classroom study," he notes. The students will learn by working together, discussing findings, and critiquing each other's methods. Faculty researchers learn from one another in the same way, he says.

Barbara Ilardi, professor of clinical and social psychology, teaches Psychology 209Q, "The Psychology of Human Sexuality." "It's the best teaching experience I've had in years," she declares. "These students are working really hard."

The class, like Heist's, is evenly divided between male and female. Ilardi says she balanced the group by gender, by interests, and by culture. "It makes for a more interesting class."

Generally, during their weekly meetings with Ilardi, the students debate an issue based on reading they've done -- the biological basis for gender roles, say. Every fourth week, a group of six students reports on a subject they've been researching, for instance how advertising depicts sexuality.

"These students are thorough and innovative in their presentations," Ilardi says, noting that they frequently enliven their reports with skits and cartoons.

"And they see new perspectives on the issues," she adds. "In the debates we often have students take the side opposite to what they believe. They have to really think their arguments through.

"The growth in confidence I see over the semester is astonishing. They are gaining intellectually, thinking in more sophisticated ways."

About 15 students sit around six white rectangular tables shoved together in Ilardi's classroom in Meliora Hall. Glass doors on one side of the room look over a small tree-lined patio. The issue before the class is the proposed legalization in this country of RU486, a drug used elsewhere in the world as an abortion agent. The teams of two women each talk across the table, each side making clear and logical points. Debate involves basic facts about the drug, side effects, potential benefits, and the political advantages and disadvantages of permitting its use.

The other students listen and offer opinions. A young man in a baseball cap says, "Americans want choices. We get angry when we don't have them."

Lively give and take among students and professors is a key element, as in Professor David Bleich's Quest that asks how societies come to adopt certain forms of literature as their own.

Another offers a compromise: "Why not legalize it, but make sure that users know all of the possible complications?"

Ilardi acts as debate referee, keeping the discussion from getting sidetracked by politics; adding a little history on the birth control pill; reminding that a local OB/GYN will be visiting the class to offer further insights.

The classroom session over, students take a minute to discuss the Quest concept. "The student/teacher ratio is great in these classes," offers one freshman. "And Ilardi really knows her stuff."

"You get to put your hands into your work and you have to think about the issues," says a young man. "You can't just say that you agree or disagree. You have to back up your position with facts."

"It's very comfortable here," concludes another. "Quest provides a great atmosphere for learning -- and going on learning."

"Going on learning." It would appear that these fledgling researchers are -- as the Quest creators hoped -- readying themselves to seek out and solve the next good question. And then the next, and then the next. . . .

Kathy Quinn Thomas is the author of "Raising Cain -- Or Abel?" a report on the research of developmental psychologist Judith Smetana in the Spring-Summer issue of the Review.

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Last updated 12-4-1996      (jc)