Union launches first student-led seminar

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By Katelyn Billings

At Union, courses are typically led by an instructor and focus on one particular subject. However, a recent student-designed Minerva course attempts to modify the community’s perception of education.

Titled “Seminar in Brain/Mind/Soul,” it is the first student-led seminar at Union, and it will hopefully give way to many more like it. The idea came from Jakub Kaczmarzyk ‘16, who enrolled in a similar pilot seminar (though not student-led) during his senior year of high school. He enjoyed the content so much that he has brought it to campus to share with the Union community.

The idea of a student-led neuroscience seminar has sparked an innovative movement and resulted in the creation of the course catered to students who wish to expand their minds to the relationships between interdisciplinary subjects in neuroscience.

“My goal is to bring this style of learning, if it is effective, to other schools in the area,” says Kaczmarzyk. “I want to share what we do here and possibly have it reproduced and modified in other places, and see what works best.” He expressed that the concept of this seminar is interdisciplinary and provides the opportunity for an array of student perspectives and mindsets to come together and connect academically and philosophically. Engineers and English majors typically don’t see each other in their classes, but with this innovative course, the opportunity is presented to learn from students and speakers of differing majors and mindsets and to interact and relate to one another over compelling topics.

While the seminar will count as an elective credit for neuroscience and psychology majors, students of all majors and interests are strongly encouraged to petition for it.

After taking a similar seminar in high school, Kaczmarzyk says it changed everything, and perhaps students here will feel the same way.

“I fell in love with it … I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and that was because I got to talk to a lot of different people who made me think about many different things in ways I wouldn’t, had I not taken the class. I hope that the seminar lets people explore their passions and interests,” he says.

Additionally, this type of seminar is typically only seen in graduate schools, and the fact that it is presented to Union’s undergraduate students is not only inspiring, but also ambitious. There is a great deal of responsibility and faith placed in the students enrolled in “Brain/Mind/Soul,” and Jakub and his team of professors, including Faculty Associate for Minerva Programs and Professor of Psychology Suzanne Benack and Assistant Professor of Psychology Christopher Cha-bris, believe that Union’s students will rise to the challenge and exceed expectations.

Class participation and discussion can be daunting to some students, but in this environment, all ideas and contributions will be welcome. The class will be comprised of 10 to 12 students as well as Chabris. Each meeting will comprise of a discussion of a specific topic, grounded in literature.

The unique aspect of this class is that the students lead and generate the discussions with relatively little instructor involvement.

A common misconception that Kaczmarzyk admits that he encounters, however, is that many people believe he will be the instructor, calling it “his class.” He wishes to express that while he has contributed to the design and modified ideas of the course, he will only be a participating student. Each student will be responsible to lead a class discussion, which includes setting goals for the conversation and preparing relevant readings or videos. Chabris will be grading this course. Criteria include a term paper according to the student’s interests, class participation and posting on the course’s blog, www.brainmindsoul.org. The blog will chronicle the progression of the class and synopsize class discussions and guest speaker presentations.

The course will be divided into three broad discussion topics: Neuroscience and Medicine, Social Justice and the Brain and Issues in Religion and Philosophy. Each week will consist of discussions and presentations from Union and outside professors and professionals. Those speakers who are unable to travel to Union this winter, Kaczmarzyk says, will even be addressing the class via video conference. The students will meet again that week to continue the conversation started during the speaker’s visit. A student will summarize the exchange of ideas in a post to the course blog.

Benack initially assisted Kaczmarzyk in designing the course. She offered some additional information on the seminar. Benack hopes that the class will not only educate students, but also inspire them to share their innovative ideas for Union’s curriculum.

Benack explained that Kaczmarzyk’s idea for a student-initiated Minerva course that provides a bridge between subjects was right in line with Union’s “spirit.” “Union is big with students having entrepreneurial outlooks, and if a student wants to run with an idea, be it academic or social, Union works with them to provide resources for them, and in that sense this is very much in keeping with the Union spirit,” she says.

She went on to say that the faculty in the Minerva offices had wanted to design a Minerva seminar for some time and were simply waiting for the perfect idea. “When Jakub came along, we jumped right on. Minerva courses combine interdisciplinary subjects and the fact that it goes outside the boundaries of the classroom, such as bringing in speakers and opening it to the community, is very groundbreaking,” Benack says.

One aspect of the course that both Kaczmarzyk and Benack hope students understand is that it is of a different form of education. Changing the way that students view education is part of the foundation of the seminar.

“I hope that they come away feeling empowered to be scholars and intellectuals themselves … to not view faculty as different from them, I hope it will enable students to feel like junior members of this community and have their own ideas, feel more like colleagues with faculty,” Benack says.

She hopes that even if students do not enroll in the course, they will be inspired to take charge as Kaczmarzyk did and make Union what they want it to be, academically or socially.

With a positive faculty response and several student applications, the course is well on its way to making a lasting impression at Union. “Seminar in Brain/Mind/ Soul” will inevitably change students’ and faculty members’ outlook on education, and it is a perfect fit for a college where ingenuity and interdisciplinary studies are valued.

“Union prides itself on being an interdisciplinary school, and this is doing exactly that: connecting many ideas in an interactive way,” says Kaczmarzyk.

The team behind the class is confident that the students partaking in this seminar will emerge with new principles and a better understanding of their passions in relation to the brain, the mind and the soul.

Enrollment in the class is by application only (found at www.brainmindsoul.org/apply). The deadline to apply is 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26.

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