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Learning Communities Enhance Freshman Experience

PLATTSBURGH, NY __An innovative program, which aims to change the way some courses are taught at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh, encourages students to be fully engaged in the learning process. The General Education Learning Community Program was launched this fall and is designed to offer freshmen a chance to enroll in a coordinated cluster of courses under a specific theme of a major contemporary issue.

This year's themes include "World Hunger," "Human Drug Experience," "Visual Culture," "The Chemistry of Life," "Culture Conflict and Morality" and "Perfecting America."  All classes are taught by faculty from many disciplines and contain about 23 students.

According to Dr. Thomas Morrissey, distinguished professor in the English department and coordinator of the Learning Community Program, the concept of this program is not new to Plattsburgh State.

"Between 1993 and 1999, about 23 faculty and a few hundred students participated in a program called, "Looking for America," which involved a cluster of classes focusing on the American identity," said Morrissey. "However, the recent changes to the general education program have made it possible for us to introduce the Learning Community Program in its current form."

Morrissey said the program has several goals for its students.

"The Learning Communities aim to provide freshmen with a transition from high school and a chance to develop habits that will make them better students in the long term," said Morrissey. "The classes are small enough to encourage students to be active and fully engaged in the learning process. They get the opportunity to know both their professors and the other students in their classes personally, hence each student feels that they are part of the group."

So far, Morrissey said that the response to the program has been positive. Most of the faculty members currently involved in the program are enthusiastic about continuing on next fall.

Dr. Richard Schnell, professor in the counseling department, teaches substance abuse, theory, policy, assessment and practice within the Learning Community's "Human Drug Experience" theme.

"I am a strong supporter of the Learning Communities and other forms of experimental education as the best ways to engage the minds of new students," said Schnell. "These programs help students to foster an atmosphere of scholarly inquiry, critical thinking and the capacity to look at multiple sides of an argument. As a professor of mainly graduate classes, I find teaching these freshmen very exciting."

Dr. Lynda Ames, professor of sociology and criminal justice, teaches introduction to sociology under the program's "Perfecting America" theme.

Ames believes that the structure of the Learning Communities helps students to make important connections within the interrelated disciplines. In addition, Ames said that the size and nature of the classes allow faculty to spend more time with individual students.

"The Learning Community Program gives professors more time to help students develop important skills," said Ames. "In return, students are assured that they have professors who are there to look out for them."

For the most part, the students involved are very receptive to the program. Angel Acosta, an undeclared major from Manhattan, NY., is enrolled in the "Culture, Conflict and Morality" theme.

"The courses are extremely intriguing," said Acosta. "I enjoy the class discussions because they encourage me to open my mind to diverse perspectives. My favorite class in the Learning Community is moral problems with Professor J.W. Wiley."

Every course in the Learning Community Program satisfies a general education requirement and meets the oral expression requirement.  All the courses include the introductory courses in several majors.

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