• Efforts to integrate research into undergraduate experience will take faculty, student input

    Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post from associate classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler. 

    On Friday, Sept. 5, a group of more than 150 faculty from across the campus gathered together in the SAC Ballroom for a daylong symposium on the future of undergraduate education at UT Austin. The symposium was convened by Provost Gregory Fenves and organized by a group of faculty, led by Jeremi Suri, a professor in both the history department and the LBJ School of Public Affairs in addition to a columnist for this newspaper.

    The aim of this symposium was to engage faculty in an important conversation: How can we better integrate our identity as a research university into the undergraduate experience? President William Powers Jr. opened the symposium with a call to the faculty to accept the charge to think hard and creatively about the future of undergraduate education at UT Austin.

    Seated around round tables in groups of six to eight, the faculty first listened to Rice bioengineering professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum describe Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies, a program that has students solving real problems with medical care that arise in developing countries. We were then asked to discuss and respond to a prompt: how should we best connect research and discovery with teaching? Each table had an assigned stenographer, who took notes on the discussion and also composed a 25-word summary of the table’s conversation (these can be found here).

    In the afternoon session, following a talk by University of Virginia history professor William Hitchcock, the conversation turned to a second question: What could be done to best motivate, enable and empower the changes that we have talked about (see summary here)? The faculty and administration at UT Austin are working hard and are deeply invested in creating an innovative, meaningful undergraduate experience for our students. We have a lot of work to do, but it quickly became clear that, somewhere on campus, there are dedicated faculty already piloting many of the ideas that emerged from the day-long symposium. We all agreed that an important next step is to engage our students in this conversation.

  • Abbott's healthcare proposal is lacking

    A few days ago, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, unveiled his plan for women's healthcare issues. The plan itself is painfully short on details, and is a rather limited solution to a big problem.

    The plan raises money for important women's healthcare such as cancer screenings, as well as more incentives for medical professionals to expand their services into historically underserved communities. As many liberal commentators have noted, this plan is more show than substance, and it completely ignores one solution that would provide a huge, immediate benefit to the women of Texas: allowing the federal government to step in and expand Medicaid, as prescribed by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

    State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, the Democratic candidate for governor, has not offered much in the way of highly detailed plans on this topic herself. However, Abbott should face special scrutiny, given the fact that he has so vigorously campaigned for the continued enforcement of an omnibus anti-abortion bill (the one Davis filibustered) that will likely close down the vast majority of clinics that provide abortions to women in Texas.

    Contrary to what many in the Republican Party may say, Planned Parenthood and likewise services do not exclusively terminate pregnancies, nor is it the majority of what they do. Rather, family planning organizations such as them spend enormous resources providing basic healthcare for women, including cancer screenings. Since Davis doesn't want these clinics closed, she doesn't have to explain how she intends upon making up the invaluable services to the women of Texas.

    Perhaps Abbott should hire a few female advisors on this topic. According to photographs of Abbott's press conference at a hospital in Houston wherein he announced his new platform, the only relevant players in this policy debate are men. No fewer than eight stand directly behind him as he discusses healthcare and choices that will directly affect none of them.

    Horwitz is an associate editor.

  • Transportation of the future

    SkyTran is an elevated Personal Rapid Transit system intended to revolutionize both urban and commuter public transportation, using computer controls to direct the two-person vehicles through the elevated network using passive Magnetic Levitation technology. SkyTran is a NASA Space Act company.
    SkyTran is an elevated Personal Rapid Transit system intended to revolutionize both urban and commuter public transportation, using computer controls to direct the two-person vehicles through the elevated network using passive Magnetic Levitation technology. SkyTran is a NASA Space Act company.

    As November and the fate of Proposition 1, the $1 billion transportation bond measure, approach, the cacophony of the Austin transportation debate grows more and more unbearable. While groups argue continuously on the metrics and merits of the chosen route of an urban rail line, the feasibility of funding and if the proposal’s consequences would even affect congestion, one is tempted to escape the politics and entertain the idea of radical alternatives. Amid the frustration, SkyTran is one such attractive alternative.

    Reminiscent of "The Jetsons," SkyTran’s computer-controlled two-person pods zip around the city at up to 62 miles per hour on an elevated system. It boasts of high-capacity abilities from its easily expandable nature, speedy delivery directly to your destination with no intermediary stops, on-demand services allowing commuters to conveniently reserve a pod for pick-up and low impact on the existing infrastructure because the elevated track would not take up traffic lanes. The system also purports to be remarkably green with its ‘maglev’ propulsion technology.

    About $600 million of Proposition 1’s budget would go toward creating a 9.5-mile urban rail line, coming out to around $63 million per mile.  According to Jerry Sanders, chairman and CEO of SkyTran Inc. and a UT Law alum, SkyTran’s system costs approximately $9 million per kilometer, or around $14.5 million per mile. The system achieves these low costs since the parts are pre-assembled at factories, meaning a quick construction time of around one to two years, compared to the proposed urban rail’s 10-15 year timeline. Though the cost is subject to certain variables like terrain and local labor, it is less than a quarter of the price of Austin’s light rail proposal.

    The biggest obstacle: it’s never been built before.  A 500-meter test loop around the Israel Aerospace Industries campus in Tel Aviv is scheduled to be up and running by the end of 2015, and advanced planning for routes in France, India and San Francisco are in the works. SkyTran is an enticing transportation solution fitting Austin’s ambitions of being a green, innovative tech-hub. It may not be the answer today, but come November, Austin voters will have to decide if they want to bind the city to decades-old, costly technology or take a breath and explore contemporary alternatives that can usher the city into the future of transportation.

    Haight is an associate editor.

  • UT should focus more on student body's economic diversity

    Vassar College was named the most economically diverse top university by the New York Times. Recently, about 23 percent of Vassar's freshmen have received Pell grants, which the federal government gives to students within the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution.
    Vassar College was named the most economically diverse top university by the New York Times. Recently, about 23 percent of Vassar's freshmen have received Pell grants, which the federal government gives to students within the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution.

    An analysis by the New York Times on Tuesday discussed the economic backgrounds of students at colleges in the U.S. that graduate 75 percent of their students in four years. The main takeaway of the study was that "otherwise similar colleges often have very different levels of commitment to economic diversity." Although the study doesn't mention UT, the University could stand to increase its diversity by looking to some of the universities topping the list, such as Vassar College and Grinnell College, and implementing some of their methods. I realize UT can't precisely model itself after these schools because much of the list is comprised of private universities with more money than UT has, but it's definitely worth considering.

    UT, like most universities, claims to strive for all kinds of diversity within its student body. But, as a Daily Texan columnist pointed out, 49 percent of students come from families with household incomes of $100,000 or more. In Texas, about 25 percent of families are within that income bracket. Of course, this can be partially explained by the fact that students who come from high-income families often perform better in school, but this can't be the only factor leading to these percentages, and we can't just accept these numbers without trying to change them.

    Upon graduating, students will have to interact with all types of people, and learning to work well with people with different backgrounds is tremendously beneficial in all aspects of life, especially in workplaces and other situations in which cooperation is essential. College seems like the perfect community to be immersed into diversity, but the preconceived notion of the diverse college campus only concerns race and ethnicity.  This mindset needs to change, though, because having friends in different economic situations is just as important as having friends with different majors or of different cultures.

    A satisfactory solution to our lack of economic diversity would require work at every level of the educational system, and politicians have been presenting possible solutions for years. I'm in no position to reasonably suggest how Texas can better fund low-performing primary and secondary schools, or how the state can recruit teachers and administrators who would ensure that students whose parents aren't adequately involved in their education will still succeed. But I think UT has a responsibility to do what it can to recruit students from lower-income areas and help them do well once they get here, and although the University will definitely run into obstacles and limitations, attempting to bring students from all over the economic scale together is important to students' educational experiences.

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