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A University student

Students have a range of classes to choose from at the University of Minnesota. Many of those courses deal with issues pertinent to the times we live in.

Courses at U mirror important topics of the day

By Pauline Oo

October 5, 2007

Just how large is the University of Minnesota? You could count the number of students it has or measure the acreage it covers, or you could just take a peek at the undergraduate and graduate catalogs. A scan of both would immediately reveal a remarkable breadth--the University of Minnesota offers programs in virtually all fields.

So it's no wonder that courses run the gamut too. This fall, the University has introduced a slew of new courses--some special topics offered only at certain times of the year; others offered each semester. And like the courses that came before them, they are relevant to the times we live in.

Here are a few new courses, along with some freshman seminars and a new minor--that intrigued us.

AAS 3920: Hmong History Across the Globe This course, offered through the Asian American Studies program, examines Hmong interaction with Laos and Vietnam (pre-1893), under French Colonial rule (1893-1955), and Hmong entanglements with the United States as guerrilla soldiers in a Secret War in Laos (1960 to 75) and the subsequent exile of more than 200,000 Hmong to the West (1975 to 2006). Minnesota has more than 45,000 Hmong (second to California's 65,000), and more than half live in Saint Paul--the nation's largest urban concentration of Hmong. In this class, professor Mai Na Lee also looks at Hmong efforts to maintain their dream of political autonomy in the midst of integrating into American society. The course is the first on Hmong history in a Southeast Asian context in the United States.

BBE 3480: Renewable Energy and Environment Renewable energy is one of the engines powering the University's drive to transform itself into one of the world's top three public research universities. So it's only natural that the U is a leader in energy conservation and green initiatives (such as burning oat hulls at its steam plant). This new course, offered by the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering through the Institute of Technology, teaches students about energy use (where we stand); energy sources (their promises and problems); conversion technologies (fuel cells, hybrids, wind, water, etc.); and the economic growth opportunities of the renewable energy industry.

COMM 3231 Reality TV: History, Culture, and Economics First there was only "Survivor;" now reality shows are commonplace on television, with such programs as "The Bachelor," "Dancing With the Stars," and "The Biggest Loser." This course, offered through the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, gives students a historical, cultural, and economic context for understanding the proliferation of commercial reality TV, its meanings, and its impact. Topics include theories of representation, technologies of truth, and the business of reality TV in the United States and globally. To learn more, read "Finding hidden lessons in reality TV." GLOS 3304: Sustainable People, Sustainable Planet Sustainability is the idea that we can meet today's needs without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs. In this course, students discuss real-world case studies involving trade-offs in achieving sustainability and learn how to integrate concepts of sustainability into their lifestyle. One of the assignments requires students to keep a record over three days of their personal waste production and then to write a short report about their waste habits. The course is one of the core classes for students pursuing the U's Sustainability Studies Minor, offered through the Ecosystem Science and Sustainability Initiative, hosted by the Institute for Social, Economic, and Ecological Sustainability.

URBS 3800: "The River, the Bridge, the Community: Beyond the Headlines of the I-35W Bridge Collapse" On August 1, the U community on the Twin Cities campus had the scare of its life-the I-35 W bridge in its backyard collapsed during rush hour traffic, injuring dozens of people and killing 13. This course, which includes a series of classroom lectures by University and off-campus experts, considers how our transportation system and the Mississippi River ecosystem will be shaped by decisions made in the next year. It's offered by The River Life Program of the Institute on the Environment, in conjunction with the U's Urban Studies Program, Water Resources Center, and Institute for Advanced Study. A public lecture series is held in conjunction with the class on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in 100 Rapson Hall. For a list of upcoming sessions, see "Telling River Stories."

Graduate minor in exotic species
With a five-year, $2.99 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Minnesota created the Risk Analysis for Introduced Species and Genotypes program and minor for graduate students that focuses on newly introduced species and genotypes and how they affect ecosystems. Students not only get to examine exotic species and genetically modified organisms up close, they get to learn how to analyze the risks of adding new organisms to an ecosystem. "Not all exotic species are problems; some can be desirable," says fisheries and wildlife professor Ray Newman. "The question is how to prevent the damaging introductions." To learn more, see the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology or call 612-624-3600.

Fall 2007 Freshman seminars

The University started freshman seminars in 1998 as a pilot program and then launched it full speed the following year. With class sizes of 15 to 18 students, the seminars are taught in the fall and spring by tenured or tenure-track professors in topics of their own choosing. This fall, freshmen had a choice of more than 95 courses. Among them:

A Psycho-Social Examination of Hip-Hop Culture Students examine hip-hop music and dress throughout the decades, and the music's impact on individual and societal values in the United States. Assistant professor of social sciences Na'im Madyun pays special attention to the impact of language and image on behavior.

From Golem to Robot to Cyborg: Artificial People in History For centuries, we've tried to create artificial people. In this class, associate professor of mechanical engineering Jennifer Alexander provides a look at the history of artificial people, from medieval attempts to create them through magic to modern attempts through robotics, cybernetics, and bioengineering.

Hospitalities: Hosts, Hotels, and Hospitals Hakim Abderrezak, assistant professor of French and Italian, takes students through the evolution of hospitality--the notion of it and the various forms it can take (for example, a personal act versus a commercial service and hospitality regulated by government or cultural practices). The course also addresses immigration and nations as host.

The Physics of Everyday Heroes University physics professor James Kakalios, known for his popular seminar on the physics of superheroes, explains the science behind technologies that help real heroes. Topics include infrared heat-sensing to find survivors of fires, MRI scans, and possible future technologies such as "functional MRI" scans to sense a person's thoughts. To learn more about this course, read "Why so many survived." What sex should I be? The XY genetic system in humans and most other mammals is not the only way that sex is determined in animals. For example, some animals develop into females if the temperature is high; others if the temperature is low. Jane Phillips, associate director of the U's biology program, explores different sex-determination systems, how they work, and how external forces can disrupt these systems.

For more topics, see Fall 2007 Freshman seminars.