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Volume 10Issue 5January/February 1999

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Big Sky Institute Advances Teaching, Equips Labs

By Evelyn Boswell

George Katrina Lesnik can be happy she waited until her last semester at MSU Bozeman to take Psychology 343, a course in animal be behavior.

If she'd enrolled any earlier, she wouldn't have been able to work with George, an albino rat who presses levers and eats pellets in the name of science. Not until this school year did the class have laboratory equipment or access to real rats. Students relied, instead, on classroom discussions and Sniffy, a computer-simulated rat whose mention still inspires horror stories from former students.

"It has been very valuable," Lesnik says of the laboratory experience. "... It's kind of nice to have the hands-on experience and watch the rats and condition them."

The opportunity to work with live rats was made possible by a $22,000 grant from the Big Sky Institute (BSI) of MSU, said course instructor Lisa Brooks. The institute paid Brooks to set up and teach the laboratory. An equal amount from the Student Equipment Fund paid for lab equipment.

"It's wonderful," Brooks said. "I feel like I'm really doing the students a service by being able to show them behavior as it's occurring. The simulations and discussions were always very limiting."

The psychology lab was one of the highest profile projects funded by the Big Sky Institute in 1997-98, says Russell Walker, co-director of the institute. Authorized in 1996 to promote excellence in science, math, engineering and technology at MSU, the institute funded several other projects, as well. Those dealt with large enrollment courses, institutional data, student feedback, microcomputer-based laboratories, curricular innovations in the earth sciences, electrical engineering and computer engineering beyond 2000, and expanding awareness of improvements in undergraduate education in plant, soil and environmental sciences. All fit into the institute's mission of leading the campus in teacher education, curricular reform and distance learning.

The BSI is based in the STEP office in Linfield Hall, but its steering committee is scattered all over campus, Walker said. The institute has three co-directors and three main areas of ongoing activities. Co-directors with Walker are Elisabeth Swanson, director of the STEP Project at MSU, and George Tuthill, physics professor who has long been instrumental in the curriculum reform movement at MSU.

The institute's ongoing activities include the curricula review grants like the one given for the animal behavior lab, Walker said. Second are the grants given for professional development. Third are the grants that fund peer mentoring for Native American students.

"We are trying to address the fact that Native American students drop out in the first year about twice as much as other students, " Walker said. "We are trying to get them off to a good start."

Besides its recurring activities, the BSI is carrying out projects funded by a $200,000 "Institution-Wide Reform of Education Grant" from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Walker said. Those projects involve faculty mentors, a campus profile to gather base-line information that will help improve instruction, and a pilot program to help faculty use portfolios to Institute continued from page I demonstrate their effectiveness as teachers.

The mentoring program, for example, provides incentives for new faculty members in science, mathematics, engineering and technology to team up with experienced faculty members and graduate students to improve learning and teaching.

In the first year, the program works by having 10 new teachers each pick a mentor and graduate student, explained Swanson. Those three people make up a team. Together, they attend seminars and workshops at MSU and share with each other how they handle teaching assignments. The new teachers would also receive "start-up packets" that emphasize their teaching roles.

The NSF grant that funds the Start-up and related programs came to MSU in 1998 after three attempts, Walker said. Giving much of the credit to Swanson, Walker said the NSF grant is directed by MSU president Michael Malone. Working with him are Walker, Swanson; Robert Marley, interim associate dean of engineering; assessment specialist Carol Thoresen and Jeff Adams, assistant professor in physics. Former vice president for research Bob Swenson did much to support this and many other Big Sky Institute ideas over the years, added Walker.

"This (grant) ... demonstrates to the new faculty that MSU, from the president on down, supports them as teachers as well as scholars," Swanson commented.

The BSI grew out of a 1994 retreat at Big Sky and was authorized by the Montana Board of Regents in 1996. Its mission is to have a "dramatic, positive effect on the education of every student at Montana State University-Bozeman.

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