Disaster on U's doorstep is topic of new class

  • Article by: Jim Foti
  • Star Tribune
  • September 10, 2007 - 10:57 PM

It's hard to keep college professors from talking about historic events, but what if the historic event happened just last month?

No problem. On Monday, the University of Minnesota started a semester-long course about the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

The syllabus, as you might imagine, has a few gaps, but the professor, Pat Nunnally, isn't worried. "This is not a 'by-the-books' class!" read one of the notes that he projected onto the screen in front of the room.

Some actual books will be involved, but on the first day, the 30 or so enrolled students were assigned to read three websites and prepare a four- to five-page paper, using both words and images they've created, about the collapse site, with extra credit given for work submitted digitally.

It's rare for the university to put together a class in response to a news event on short notice, though the Indian Ocean tsunami during the 2004-05 winter break inspired a course that started a few weeks later.

While the tsunami couldn't have happened much farther from campus, the proximity of the collapse was part of the allure for some students in the bridge class.

'A close-to-home thing'

Luke Miller, a junior, lives on 10th Avenue SE., three blocks from where the bridge used to stand, so it's "a close-to-home type of thing," he said.

Plus, as an architecture student, he's interested in how the collapse is affecting the community, and he's excited to "be one of the first ones to actually study it."

Miller and classmate Tim Hanrahan, also an architecture student, were both out of the state over the summer, so the three-credit class gives them a chance to learn details they missed while they were gone.

But the class is not, in Nunnally's words, "CSI: Minneapolis" -- students won't be trying to figure out what brought the bridge down Aug. 1.

Instead, they'll look at social, design and environmental issues related to the bridge, the Mississippi River and the community, and they'll "engage in dialogue" with the guest lecturers.

A place for the public

The lectures, held separately from the class, will be open to the public. Nunnally hopes to hold the first one Oct. 2; he already has Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak lined up for Oct. 9.

One of the course's goals, Nunnally said, is to prepare the students to ask questions of leaders and step up as citizens.

"If you don't participate in deciding what your city's going to look like, somebody else will decide it for you," he said. "You might as well be in on that conversation."

Nunnally, who has a Ph.D. in American studies and is also teaching a course on the urban landscape, is coordinating a collection of stories about the Mississippi River, and students in the bridge class will be required to contribute.

Scholars "haven't written a textbook about what to do when a bridge collapses," Nunnally said. "Maybe we'll write it."

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

Jim Foti •

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