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Learning to Learn, Learning to Adapt: Seminars Help Forge Academic Paths

November 13, 2006

Learning to Learn, Learning to Adapt: Seminars Help Forge Academic Paths

Every transition provides a new challenge, says Jorge Castro. He should know; he’s been through plenty.

In his native Honduras at age 11, Castro survived 1998’s devastating Hurricane Mitch, which was said to have destroyed 50 years of progress in that country.

I realized life could end in seconds, he said. It made me want to help others.

At age 12, he came to California – another huge personal and cultural transition. He learned English and began to excel in school.

This fall, Castro arrived at UC Merced intending to major in psychology. He wants to help Latino immigrants, especially fellow Hondurans, cope with life’s challenges as he has learned to do.

Part of that exploration has involved Castro’s Freshman Seminar course. Cognitive science professor David Noelle teaches the section titled Am I My Brain? that Castro chose.

Castro rattles off a list of provocative questions Noelle encourages the class to discuss. Is consciousness attached to the brain, or could it be something else? Does the brain define who a person is? All of that person, or just some? Is the so-called insanity defense valid – can a person be faulted for a crime if his or her brain doesn’t function properly?

I’ll always remember that, Castro said of the insanity defense discussion.

The class feels like person-to-person rather than professor-to-student, he added. The different perspectives we get help all of us understand the material.

Noelle said that’s one of the goals of the Freshman Seminar program, which is administered through UC Merced’s general education engine, College One.

It’s about teaching students how to think and learn at a university level, Noelle said.

The seminar courses, available in several disciplines in addition to cognitive science, also aim to help students connect with professors, form mentoring relationships and feel comfortable asking questions.

Castro still plans to major in psychology. But he’s adding a minor in cognitive science after his experience in his Freshman Seminar.

It’s really interesting for me because of all the life changes I’ve been through and all the things I’ve seen, he said.