September 26, 2008

Living-learning environment aids science students

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Science students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale can lean on each other for support more than ever with the opening this fall of several floors in a campus residence set aside specifically for them.

About 70 science students are living on the second and third floors of Felts Hall, participating in the latest living-learning environment on the SIUC campus. Living-learning environments seek to provide students in similar fields of study with a support system.

Part of the living-learning environment specifically targets freshmen. The freshmen interest group, or “FIG,” is part of the living-learning environment. It helps these students adjust to the rigors of college of life and studies.

Jean McPherson, chief academic adviser in the College of Science, said the living arrangement helps the college’s incoming freshmen navigate the challenges of their initial courses in mathematics, biology, physics and others at the same time that they are learning to live on their own.

“Coming to the University is an exciting and challenging time in a young person’s life, and the living-learning environment supports them as they experience this,” McPherson said. “This is an effort to welcome them and keeping them from feeling isolated or blocked off, and we’ve actually seen a lot of appreciation from parents.”

The College of Science and the College of Agricultural Sciences are the latest to initiate living-learning environments, said Kathie A. Lorentz, housing program coordinator with University Housing. All eight colleges on campus now offer the arrangements, which range from students living on a single floor or occupying an entire residence hall.

All together, about 920 students are taking advantage of living-learning environments across campus, Lorentz said.

“We have had an undergraduate researcher conducting focus groups on this and we’ve gotten very positive reactions,” Lorentz said. “The students know they have support. If they are sick and miss class, for instance, they know someone on their floor can tell them what happened. When they’re ready to study, there is always someone in the same class to work with.

“We find they start doing things outside of class together, like dining and walking to class in groups of two or three. Many of them say the program exceeds their expectations, and that they would recommend it to other students.”

Each college makes use of the living-learning environment in its own way, Lorentz said. The College of Engineering, for instance, requires freshmen and sophomores to live in the arrangement, while others make it an option.

While the programs typically stress the advantages for underclassmen, upperclassmen also can and do benefit from the arrangement.

“They find they’re all taking similar classes and they can help each other out,” she said. “Often, they can find someone who has taken the class before, and they can get advice.”

Another key aspect of the program is faculty and staff involvement, Lorentz and McPherson said. College of Science faculty and staff helped the students move in last month, and faculty will drop in and chat, dine or can even conduct discussions and presentations in the informal setting.

“We hope it gets even bigger,” McPherson said.