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Freshman Seminars

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
posted September 16, 1998

When my parents and I sat down to figure out my Berkeley academic plan the summer before my freshman year, we decided that I should get all seven of the mandatory breadth requirements out of the way in my first semester (with the junior college classes I had already taken, it was an attainable goal).

For me, completing the breadth requirements meant taking a biological science, a physical science and a social science all in the same semester. The prospect of tackling that many sciences at once was pretty daunting until I learned about the freshman/sophomore seminar courses offered by most departments. They were supposed to be far less hard-core and less crowded than the science major-track introductory courses like Chemistry 1A and Biology 1A. I signed up for Geology 39A (which fulfilled the physical science requirement at that time but no longer does), Natural Resources 39B (the biological science), and Psychology 39D (the social science).

Geology 39A (aka Rocks for Jocks) was an introduction to California geology, with six class meetings and a mandatory four-day field trip. This class was too great to be true. Not only did it count as a physical science, but it was practical, accessible and didn't involve calculating formulas. When I was younger I had a secret desire to become a volcanologist (though I knew I couldn't handle the chemistry and molten rock part of the job), so I was excited to discover that the required field trip was to the volcanically active Mammoth Lakes area.

Professor Ian Carmichael, four graduate student instructors, 29 undergraduates and I spent four fun-filled days walking through nature's laboratory, enduring a surprise snowstorm and examining unique geological wonders. I came back to Berkeley with some dirt under my nails and a greater understanding of California's geology.

Psychology 39D turned out to be a learning experience for both the students and our professor. We worked with Professor Joseph Campos in shaping the style of the class, and by the end of the semester we had a pretty good formula, involving structured discussions and lots of snacks and soda. I ended up learning more about psychology from our discussions and class-shaping sessions than I did from reading the required books.

Natural Resources 39B covered micro-organisms in daily life. As a class we made yogurt, beer, sauerkraut (which failed miserably) and compost. We studied everything from food poisoning to using bacteria to control frost on crops. In the process we went on field trips to Anchor Steam Brewery, an East Bay MUD sewage treatment plant and Berkeley's Botanical Garden. On those field trips I was able to talk to Professor Steven Lindow as a person rather than as a teacher.

In that class I met a friend who I talk to regularly, a boy whom I haven't let out of my sight for the past two years and a professor who made me appreciate and understand a whole bunch of microorganisms.

Without these seminars I may have spent my entire Berkeley career silently sitting in the back of classrooms and avoiding conversations with professors. Seminars are an important part of the Berkeley curriculum. They put a smiling face on the often intimidating ivory tower.


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