- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

NORFOLK — Upbeat music and soft lighting greet the hundreds who file in to find their coliseum seats. A movie preview or bright, fluid colors flash on the big screens as a warm-up to the main attraction.

The venue at Old Dominion University’s (ODU) Ted Constant Convocation Center relies on the latest in technology and sometimes imports talent from other states or other countries. But entertainment is not its goal.

In the 21st century, the ivory tower rocks.

“NetPAGE: New Portals to Appreciating Our Global Environment” is an experiment for the state-supported university. It’s the first time that the entire freshman class has been brought together for a course, and pulling it off has given the faculty a good stretch.

First came several years of planning that involved representatives of every college — from engineering to fine arts. Next was the textbook, written as a collaborative effort.

Teaching a class of 1,727 required the production crew of academicians to embrace some of the highest technology.

“You sort of run it like you would a TV show,” said Cecil Burgett, a graduate assistant whose specialty is educational technology. “You write a storyboard.”

During the weekly lectures, Mr. Burgett has a laptop on the floor, where he maintains a vigil to coordinate PowerPoint presentations and video screenings.

Graduate assistants are part of the production crew. And many of the faculty planners show up for the lectures whether they have a role that week or not.

“This is my baby,” said A. James English, his cheeks flushed after his lecture on health risks from pollution.

Mr. English, director of environmental health programs in the College of Health Sciences, credited university President Roseann Runte with coming up with the idea for the course. But he smiled as broadly when he described his role in its inception — just as he did when his daughter came up after class for a hug.

The planning committee continues to meet weekly. The inaugural course has had problems that were both technical — microphones had to be replaced because the old ones made the ceiling speakers screech — and logistical. Different people teach the lecture class each week, and discussion groups are in the hands of 33 graduate students.

So far, student participation during the lecture class is limited and low-tech. Richard Whittecar, associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, passes out index cards for students’ written questions, then collects them to give to the speaker.

Terri Mathews, an assistant dean in the College of Sciences who works with struggling students, sees NewPAGE as an opportunity to help freshmen feel like they are part of the university.

“This is a way of getting them in the groove,” she said.

Not all students share their professors’ enthusiasm, though.

“I care about the environment, but not to this extent,” Zack McIlrath of Virginia Beach said as he walked to class.

The environment was chosen as the theme because it lends itself well to many disciplines. Topics have ranged from climate changes to health threats in Africa to sustainable development from an engineering standpoint.

Freshman Alonje Faircloth of Hampton said she initially thought NewPAGE was a waste of time, but has come to think the material will be useful.

“One day, I might work for a company that might send me to Africa or China or somewhere,” she said. “You never know.”

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