New Smith Students' First Charge: Find Answers
NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—After bidding farewell to home and parents, two dozen new Smith College students will spend their first 48 hours on campus in a race for obscure answers.
The exercise, which conjures images of a reality television show, is part of a pre-orientation session titled “Intellectual Inquiry” that aims to give incoming students a crash course in the process of digging for information using the college’s resources.
The first-year students will start Aug. 30 at the Smith College Museum of Art with a list of questions based on an 1865 painting titled “View of Northampton from the Dome of the Hospital.”
Painted by 19th-century landscape artist Thomas Charles Farrar from atop the newly built mental health hospital—then named the Northampton Lunatic Asylum—the image depicts a pastoral scene with the town in the background and Paradise Pond in the foreground. Created six years before Smith College was founded, the college is absent.
The incoming students will organize into three groups and receive questions that encompass specific areas of study, scientific, social and cultural, such as: What was an English painter doing in Northampton? What was the local population like at that time and how has it changed over the years? What species of trees are featured in the painting? What time of year is it? How much power could the pictured dam produce?
At the end of the 48 hours, each group will share what they found.
“It is not just about what we found, but what questions would we still like to investigate,” said James Henle, professor of mathematics and designer of the course. “I want to give them a taste of all of these areas of study – I hope it will impact the courses they choose to take.”
Henle will guide the students on their quest along with Dana Leibsohn, associate professor of art; John Brady, the Mary Elizabeth Moses Professor of Geology; and Louis Wilson, professor of Afro-American studies.
Students will be able to find the answers in the college’s libraries, labs, and archives. Some students will also use an electronic microscope to look at parts of the canvas while others will use a paintbrush and canvas or the Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a mapping tool.
The course was taught only once before, during the January term, but this version is “more ambitious,” say its creators, because the student participants are not familiar with the campus or their classmates. It is one of eight courses offered through Smith’s pre-orientation program, which enrolls about 300 new students this year.
Pre-orientation will be followed by orientation, when students meet advisors and housemates, and register for classes, which are slated to begin on Sept. 8.
Smith College received a record number of applications this year and will enroll the most selective and diverse entering class in its history, according to the Admission Office.
Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation’s foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 60 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women’s college in the country.
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