Jan. 25, 2006- Last year, the Honors Program at the University of Utah piloted an original Think Tank course, a year-long seminar that focused on the downtown revitalization of Salt Lake City. As the year progressed, the students narrowed their focus and by May, each was a quasi-expert on the selected two-block area. So valuable was their research, the students were invited to present findings to the Salt Lake City Council, the Downtown Alliance, Utah Transit Authority, the Utah Department of Transportation and to city planners and designers at a conference sponsored by the Urban Land Institute.
Because of its success, the U’s Honors Program tripled its offering for this academic year. The cohorts, comprised of students from a variety of disciplines and class levels, are researching “Bioethics,” “Rural Utah” and “Crossing the Religious Divide.” The Think Tanks are taught by distinguished U professors and community leaders. Each student participant, chosen from a large pool of applicants, receives a $1,000 stipend, offsetting the cost of the course.
Honors Program Director Martha S. Bradley describes the Think Tank as a “learning community,” not necessarily a class course, but “a collaboration, teambuilding mechanism, a research process-because the outcome will emerge from the process.”
As the winter semester begins, 10 U students studying bioethics-and the many complexities surrounding the subject-will reconvene to target a project to be completed by the end of the year. Taught by distinguished professors University Vice President for Research Raymond F. Gesteland and Margaret “Peggy” Battin, professor of philosophy and U Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence winner, as well as prestigious guest lecturers, the class has already explored the broad spectrum of issues surrounding ethics and genetics-eugenics, genetic counseling, the genetics of race, personalized medicine, health insurance and evolutionary genetics. Class members are quick to point out that the U is an ideal place to study these topics, as Utah is the home of exceptional lineage records and as more genes related to disease have been discovered at the University than in any other part of the world.
Gesteland and Battin say their Tuesday night Think Tank is the students’ project. Students set their assignments, choose their readings, to some degree designate the kinds of discussions they have and suggest the topics and kinds of speakers they want. This semester they will flesh out an idea for their cohort community project. “It’s a very good pedagogical thing to be doing,” Battin says, “because, of course, it’s like real life.”
Because the class is held over the dinner hour, an esprit de corps has developed as classmates have become friends over pizza and homemade cookies. Gesteland is struck by the fact that the students listen so intently to each other.
Nancy Brown, director of development for the Honors Program, says, “The Think Tanks apply the students’ best thinking on an issue and involves them in service to the community. Gesteland and Battin agree that the process of project-forming has been central.
Notes Bradley: “The Think Tank groups all have public partners with whom they regularly work, all the while satisfying pedagogical and curricular goals. And, because the classes offer recommendations to community agencies, they provide a really valuable product,” explains Bradley, also an associate professor of architecture in the U’s Graduate School of Architecture. “And the concept fits well within University President Michael Young’s community outreach initiatives as the Think Tank forms important public partnerships to enrich the mix,” she says.
This year’s “Rural Utah” course is taught by Vicky Newman, U assistant professor in the Department of Communication, and Geralyn Dreyfous, Academy Award-winning documentary film maker. The teachers and the students study stories about the land and the relationship between people and the land.
“Crossing the Religious Divide” is taught by the Reverend France Davis, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church and Alliance for Unity member, and Reverend Frederick Quinn, lecturer, author and assisting priest at the Salt Lake City All Saints Episcopal Church. Honors student Brock Worthen, an economics major, was in last year’s Think Tank course and is now enrolled in this year’s “Crossing the Religious Divide.” He says, “The class has helped me appreciate the religious diversity-and the value that it adds or has the potential to add-here in Utah and in the world.”
Currently there are 2,000 U students enrolled in the Honors Program, which has graduated two Rhodes Scholars and a host of notable leaders in literature, academia, law, science, medicine, government and business. For more information on the U’s Honors Program, visit http://www.honors.utah.edu/.