New USD program aimed at easing freshman routine First Year Experience promotes active learning

New USD program aimed at easing freshman routine First Year Experience promotes active learning Paramedic Conley Orth talks about his work as an emergency health care provide aboard one of Sioux Valley Hospital's Medivac helicopters Monday with University of South Dakota health professions students. by David Lias Soon after the blades of a Sioux Valley Medivac helicopter had stopped turning Monday, Conley Orth, a paramedic aboard the aircraft, found himself surrounded by University of South Dakota health professions students.

Student access to the chopper and to Orth was easy, since the aircraft was piloted not to the landing pad by Sioux Valley Vermillion Hospital, but to an area of clear grass just north of Old Main on the USD campus.

Orth talked not only about his profession, but the field of work his wife has chosen.

"There's opportunity not in just my field, but in nursing, too," he told the students. "My wife is a nurse, but she almost never touches a patient. She does what's called case management. She works with workman's comp files, and she goes on-site and goes to some patients' actual doctor appointment and sees that the patients get proper care and rehabilitation.

"There are lots of opportunities out there for nurses," he added.

He also talked about the different medical training he and his wife have received. Orth said it takes less time to become certified as a paramedic than a nurse.

"Paramedic school is a lot shorter; it's geared much more to emergency type medicine," he said. "You learn more about actual skills like incubating and things of that nature. Our training is geared more towards emergency, out-of-the hospital type of health care, whereas nursing is more in-hospital, and is much broader in nature."

A break in the routine

The medivac helicopter's visit to USD Monday was part of a new program started this fall to help freshman students make the transition from high school to university life.

The only program of its scope in the state, USD's First Year Experience (FYE) Program is designed to promote active learning, critical thinking and peer formation.

In addition the program promises to help students connect to faculty and make their proposed course of study more meaningful in their first semester.

"Part of the FYE program is learning communities," said Stephen Ward, FYE assistant. "We've established four learning communities of students enrolled in the same academic orientation class."

There are four groups of USD students taking advantage of this learning community program. Twenty-five students are in the health professions community; 25 students are in the social justice community (for pre-law students), 25 students are in the critical discovery community (for undeclared students), and approximately 10 students are

in the computer science community.

Most of the health science students that viewed the medivac helicopter Monday are majoring in biology, and ultimately could become involved in a wide range of health-related fields, from physical and occupational therapy to nursing and dental hygiene.

Positive consequences

The program's origins derived from observations by administrators and faculty around the country who could see that their students were not prepared for the culture and expectations of college life when compared to previous generations.

Formalized since those early observations, many universities have developed or adopted semester and year-long programs to help first-year students acclimate to higher education.

These institutions report positive consequences to these programs, such as increased engagement among students and faculty, higher retention rates, improved campus morale, and a general upturn in academic performance.

"This program just started this year," Ward said. "The four learning communities were established as a pilot program, and we're hoping to expand.

"The purpose really is to get students engaged in learning here at USD right from the start, to get to know a professor really well, and they also attend two or three classes together," he said.

The students in turn will hopefully form study groups and social groups.

"They will have a deeper connection with one another and with faculty on campus," Ward said.

Three pronged system

USD's First Year Experience learning community concept is a three-pronged system. The students in each of the four learning communities enroll in the same academic orientation class, have the option to live in the same residence hall, and enroll in a modified block schedule for which spaces in certain classes have been specifically reserved for them.

The program allows freshman students to take a block of classes together, including a first year seminar designed to introduce its students to academic life at a university in a specific major area.

The program is under the direction of Dr. Karen Olmstead, director for honors and undergraduate studies at USD. Olmstead is also a member of the biology department faculty and a past chair of that department.

Ward serves as an academic advisor and assistant to the First Year Experience Program. Ward is a native of Vermillion and received his master's degree in history from USD in 1993.

Julie Nearman is also an academic advisor and assistant to the First Year Experience Program. A native of Sioux Falls, Nearman received her bachelor's degree from USD in 1997 and her master's degree in counseling from USD in 1999.

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