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May 24, 2013

Colleges partner to make honors courses available to Alaska Middle College School students

“What do you think this is?” says UAA Associate Professor Don Rearden to his class of Honors 192 students. He holds up a smooth, brown, six-inch-long T-shaped object before handing it off to a nearby student for closer examination.

Don Rearden, Honors 192
Don Rearden taught Honors 192 to Alaska Midldle College School students
at the Chugiak-Eagle River Campus during the spring 2013 semester.
As the object is passed from one puzzled student to the next, Rearden offers the class a hint. The object is a fossil from a prehistoric Alaska mammal. One young man suggests that it’s the fang of a saber-tooth tiger.
 
Sound far-fetched? Not really. Rearden explains that at one time the Alaskan landscape was filled with larger-than-life creatures – woolly mammoths, enormous bears, and even crocodiles. While it may sound like the stuff of legend, it is, in fact, true.
 
Rearden reveals this fossil was once part of an antler of a prehistoric caribou or elk, neither mammal quite as ominous as some of its counterparts. After providing students with a vivid picture of this harsh Alaskan landscape, Rearden engages them in a writing exercise about what it would have been like to live during this time period.

What made this honors course distinct from others offered during the spring 2013 semester is that the majority of students enrolled were in high school. In addition, the course was the first of its kind to be offered at the Chugiak-Eagle River Campus. It was launched through a partnership between the University Honors College and the Community & Technical College.

While the expansion of courses to the extended campus in Eagle River offers UAA students greater access to honors programming, this particular pilot course paved the way for students at the Alaska Middle College School to participate.

The middle college school, which is housed at the Chugiak-Eagle River Campus, is an early college program begun last fall through a partnership with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. The school makes it possible for junior and senior students to earn credits toward a UAA Associate of Arts degree while earning their high school diploma.

While touring the Chugiak-Eagle River Campus a year ago, Karen Schmitt, Community & Technical College dean and Ron Spatz, University Honors College dean, began discussing the possibility of offering honors courses there. Aware of the newly established partnership with Mat-Su, Spatz was especially intrigued by the possibility for the honors college to offer courses that would also be available to students in the middle college.

"It became very clear early on in discussions with Dean Spatz that including the honors college in the Mat-Su-UAA partnership would provide a new opportunity for increased academic rigor, participation in research, and development of academic skills for the Alaska Middle College School students,” said Cynthia Rogers, Chugiak-Eagle River Campus director.

But would high school students be ready for the rigors of college-level honors course work? Rearden, who was tapped to teach the course, had his doubts.

The class centered on the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, a complex novel that deals with difficult philosophical questions about humanity’s relationship to the earth. Students examined and discussed not just the story found within the novel but the content and its implications.


Zachary Neubauer
Zachary Neubauer works on a writing assignment
during Honors 192. He is a student in the
Alaska Middle College School.
In spite of his initial concerns, Rearden was pleasantly surprised.

“These are exceptionally talented and motivated students,” he said. “If anything I myself have been inspired by their enthusiasm and their commitment to the course. They aren’t just acting like future honors students, they are honors students.”

According to Rogers, parents are seeking a challenging academic environment for their children, and students responded positively to the honors course offering.

“Studying the book ‘Ishmael’ has helped me examine my own personal beliefs about social and environmental issues,” said Alaska Middle College School student Zachary Neubauer. “Taking honors college classes while in high school has helped prepare me for college by developing my ability to think critically about material. I am now able to more effectively examine aspects of literature and society for underlying patterns and meaning.”

With the success of this pilot course, plans are on the horizon to expand the honors offerings at the Chugiak-Eagle River Campus next fall.

“We’re excited about the partnership with the Alaska Middle College School because we believe we should allow students to accelerate when they’re ready,” said Spatz. “These courses provide the right kind of start for successful academic careers.”

Story by Kirstin Olmstead