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JMU's "epic" 2010 Orientation Experience

James Madison University freshmen experienced a connection between science and the arts in a unique way this year—senior orientation peer advisor Jeff Alexander described it as "epic!"

On Thursday, Aug. 26, students joined members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange on the Quad for "The DNA Dance." JMU's 4,000 freshmen were divided between two sessions for the dance.

Over the summer, freshmen were charged with reading and writing a reaction to "The DNA Age," a series of articles written by Amy Harmon for "The New York Times." The readings created the framework for Preface@JMU, a focused small-group conversation led by a faculty member to introduce students to JMU's academic culture.

Harmon won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for expository writing for "The DNA Age." The articles, written from various viewpoints, explore issues of identity, birthright, ethics, history and more. Faculty used the articles to discuss critical thinking, academic responsibility and learning.

The dance, led by 280 student orientation leaders, connected first-year students' thoughts and reactions to "The DNA Age" to movement in dance.

DNA and the college experience

Carol Hurney, director of the Center for Faculty Innovation and associate professor of biology, says DNA makes a great metaphor for college life. "Everybody's DNA has two strands, but in order for information to get into the DNA or for you to get anything out of the DNA you have to open it up. In college, if you stay closed up and stay within yourself and you don't explore, you are sort of the most useless DNA molecule on this campus, because in order for you to reach your full potential you have to open yourself up."

The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, a professional dance company from Maryland, is known for their multidisciplinary art. Tisha McCoy-Ntiamoah, director of orientation, says, "This year at JMU we are really taking the arts and sciences and merging them. That's where Liz Lerman comes in to help us accomplish that goal."

Earlier this summer student orientation leaders, in conjunction with members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, created dance moves that represent differences in people attributed to DNA such as hair color or height.

The "DNA Dance" culminated in the students creating a "DNA strand" that stretched the length of the Quad, a visual, working, breathing representation of what the freshmen were reading.

A yearlong experience

The DNA Dance made quite an impression on JMU's incoming class, and students will have the opportunity to follow up their orientation experience throughout the year.

Planning is under way for Harmon to visit campus to lecture and teach. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, will lecture in January.

In addition to orientation, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange will visit campus several times this year to teach students and will perform "Ferocious Beauty: Genome" Jan. 21 and Jan. 23 at the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. Inspired by the mapping of the human genome, this multimedia dance performance showcases a unique collaboration between artists, scientists and educators.

Two interdisciplinary courses introduced this year will explore science and art. This fall Dr. Louise Temple, professor of integrated science and technology, and Alysia Davis, part-time faculty member in Cross Disciplinary Studies, are teaching "Gender Issues and Visualization in Science." In the spring Dr. Kyle Seifert, assistant professor of biology, and Lisa Tubach, associate professor of art, will be teaching a course about the intersection of art and science, particularly genetics.