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Outside experts judge Barrett thesis projects


June 02, 2008

Seniors in Barrett, the ASU Honors College, could be excused for their furrowed brows during the spring semester. After all, their graduation hinges not only on completing a required number of honors courses and maintaining a 3.25 grade-point average, but on submitting and defending a detailed thesis or creative project.

The project can be a challenging experience, requiring them to submit a prospectus months in advance and to work long hours with an ASU mentor to refine their work.

For the past three years, a group of Barrett seniors has gone even further, however, bringing in outside experts to grill them about their theses, to see how their work measures up on a national scale.

Using funds provided by a grant from Women in Philanthropy and from Barrett student fees, they have arranged to fly in leading academics from around the country to judge their thesis defenses, and to meet with ASU faculty as a bonus activity. This spring, about 20 “external examiners” visited ASU for a day, most often giving rave reviews to the students for their work and to the university for initiating the program.

“I was incredibly impressed with the quality of the student’s research and writing,” says Jason Delborne, a fellow in the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who reviewed Eva Wingren’s thesis on science and policy. “It read more like a master’s project than something typical of an undergraduate.

“I very much appreciated interacting with ASU faculty and participating in a meeting hosted by ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology and Society. Working with that group of scholars pushed my own scholarship in new directions and expanded my professional network significantly.”

The external examiners program has clear benefits for students, faculty and ASU, which is why it was started, according to Mark Jacobs, Barrett’s dean. He brought the idea for the program from Swarthmore College, where he was associate provost and chair of the biology department before coming to ASU in 2003.

The program holds students to national standards in their field, preparing them for graduate school, and they forge close relationships with their ASU mentors in the process. ASU faculty members get to meet with well-known experts in their fields. The university, in turn, gets a boost in prestige when the examiners return to their own universities with reports of what’s going on at ASU.

“It’s not often that one sees this level of commitment to undergraduate education from nationally renowned scholars on a major research university campus,” says Howard Tennen, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center who judged three student presentations this spring. “The very idea of inviting faculty from across the country was itself a clear indicator of the university’s commitment.

“After meeting students in the program, the results of this commitment were apparent. The presentations I saw were by far the most impressive undergraduate talks I’ve encountered during the past 30 years. They were at least as strong as the vast majority of masters thesis oral presentations I’ve attended, and not far from the quality of dissertation defenses.”

This spring’s external examiners came from Cornell Medical School, New York University, Hunter College, the universities of Minnesota, Alabama, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, even a university in Spain. Journalism students brought in a producer from CNN and a reporter from the Oregonian in Portland.

Barrett students secure their own experts and arrange for them to read their theses beforehand, and ASU faculty members arrange other meetings and workshops around their visits. Most of this year’s 420 graduates presented to committees of experts from ASU.

Immaculada De Melo-Martin, an associate professor of medical ethics at Cornell, says she particularly enjoyed getting to meet and have dinner with faculty from ASU’s ethics and bioethics programs, including Jane Maienschein, Jason Robert, Margaret Walker and Joan McGregor.

She met with three groups of students, including graduate students, and calls it “a rare and valuable experience” for students.

Maienschein, who has been involved with the program since its beginning, says it is “brilliant in producing benefits for everybody.”

“It’s a transformative program for the whole university, because it advertises ASU to some of the best universities in the nation,” Jacobs says. “It adds to the quality of students’ work and serves as a visiting committee for departments, a mini-national meeting for faculty. It helps us all develop.”