Heard on the Hill: ‘Supplemental instruction’ is another KU retention tool; prof calls for careful examination of algae to be used for biofuels; KU speaker to discuss Russian Pussy Riot band today

Your daily dose of news, notes and links from around Kansas University.

• I wrote last weekend about some ways KU is trying to get freshmen to stick around a little longer — eventually raising its first-year retention rate from about 80 percent to about 90 percent.

There was one additional piece of information I didn’t squeeze into that article, but I still thought was worth passing along.

Many of these ideas (including this one) are still in the pilot stage, but will likely be expanded later.

This one involves hiring students who have formerly done very well a class (say, introduction to psychology) to help out with other students enrolled in this new semester.

The student who’s already done well actually sits in the class and listens to all the lectures again, and then holds study sessions outside of class for anyone who wants to sit in.

The student leading the sessions also coordinates with the faculty member. The buzzword for this (in higher education, everything has a buzzword) is “supplemental instruction.”

This is being tried this fall in just a small number of courses, but as I said, don’t be surprised if it sticks around.

• There’s an awful lot of momentum at KU surrounding ways to look at alternative fuels these days, and particularly ways to use biological material as an energy source.

That new, shiny building on the engineering campus has a whole area devoted to it, for example.

However, I saw this article in which Val Smith, a KU professor who studies ecosystem ecology, recommended some caution before jumping right in.

Specifically, he and a colleague (Allison Snow of Ohio State, writing in the journal BioScience) were talking about situations where companies might be growing genetically engineered algae for use in biofuels. In those cases, Smith suggested that independent investigative studies should be done to determine what impacts they might have on the local ecology.

This stuff can apparently be grown in big, open ponds. There, the genetically altered material might spread to naturally growing species and could potentially be devastating to those species — and consequently the entire ecosystem, the authors argued.

• I did spot this rather interesting-sounding event scheduled for today featuring a Skype discussion with a Moscow-based journalist about the feminist band called Pussy Riot and the stir it’s created in the country.

Here’s a brief synopsis of where the story is now and where it’s been, if you haven’t been keeping up.

The whole affair has caused quite the free speech kerfuffle in Russia and around the world. Social media sites have helped folks spread the word about the government’s efforts to stifle dissent in ways that haven’t been possible before.

Journalist Kirill Mikhailov will speak via Skype and take questions from the audience at 1 p.m. today at the Big 12 Room in the Kansas Union.

Erik Herron, a political science professor who’s very familiar with the scene in that part of the world, will introduce the speaker.

• Heard on the Hill is a free speech kerfuffle every day, especially with the great tips I’ve been getting lately at ahyland@ljworld.com.