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June 12, 1999
Computer Science Professor Pioneers 'Holistic' Education In Oklahoma
A P Kamath
Six years ago, a 33-year-old a computer science professor in one of America's poorer states, set out to offer 'holistic' educational opportunity to students.
He had been disturbed to see many bright Oklahoma high school and college students move to schools and colleges in other states, convinced that Oklahoma did not provide them enough opportunities.
Dr Sujeet Shenoi set out to change that.
He started a recruiting campaign, promising the applicants who chose the University of Tulsa over more competitive institutions, that he would design a curriculum involving them in research, teach special courses, and give them as much one-on-one attention he could give. But he also expected them to give back to the community, help elementary and high school kids in poorer parts of Tulsa.
"I have never been interested in helping people become mere top class professionals," Dr Shenoi says while discussing how his Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge program has caught on. Articles about it have appeared in many publications including the Chronicle of Higher Learning. "I was not interested in creating the Microsoft of Midwest..."
What he envisioned was a holistic curriculum: "Teaching, research, and more importantly, community service should be a singular function."
"My goal is to create public leaders who are also academic and research scholars," he says.
When TURC was new, there were just a handful of students. As the program grew, and there were more than dozen students involved, Shenoi used some of his research grant money to pay stipend to the students, get software and buy plane or train tickets for the conferences some of his students would attend.
Now, the program, which has 30 high school and college student, gets donations from philanthropists and the community. Recently it received $ 1.5 million from two donors.
Last year, Dr Shenoi was one of the four academics selected for the Professors of the Year award by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It was the first time, all the winners were female or minority scholars.
The awards, which include $ 5,000 for each recipient, were first given in 1981. The national awards program is the only one of its kind to honor college professors for their teaching.
"I will have to work extra hard the rest of my life to deserve it," Shenoi had said last year.
With Dr Shenoi's guidance, students build homes for Habitat for Humanity (a project started by former president Jimmy Carter to help put roofs over poor people's head), refurbish junked computers for poor school children, teach computer science courses in schools where classes and teachers don't exist, and encourage girls to think of careers in science and engineering.
"I won't soon forget the TURC student who, overwhelmed with his own heavy course load and nearing the finals, took time to assist an eighth grader whose overdue science fair project needed big help," says Bonnie Jones, principal of the Saints Peter and Paul School.
"I have found that the TURC students reflect the philosophy Dr Shenoi lives," Jones adds. "They seem to recognize a responsibility to develop their talents and use their expertise to give back to both colleagues and the greater community."
Dr Shenoi sees TURC as a community of high school and college students -- and of academics.
"I see TURC as a series of cascading waterfalls reaching from faculty and graduate students to upperclassmen to underclassmen to high school students, and hopefully, soon all the way down to elementary school students," he says.
One of TURC's cherished goals is to create a community of scholar-leaders who will become Oklahoma's new role models, he continues.
In national scholarship competitions, the program has produced 12 winners of the Goldwater Scholarship in undergraduate science, and two Marshall scholars, the first for an Oklahoma University in more than 28 years. The Barry M Goldwater Scholarships is given to 280 to 300 students each year; universities are allowed to nominate up to four students. Last year, all four nominated from TURC won the scholarships. Most national winners are juniors but 11 of Tulsa's 12 winners were sophomores -- ten of whom were mentored directly by Dr Shenoi.
Bombay-born Dr Shenoi, who received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, has a winning streak too. He holds three degrees from Kansas State University including a Ph D in chemical engineering, and is soon to get a Ph D in computer science.
Dr Shenoi and his wife Kamini, a system analyst at Cito Petroleum in Tulsa, have two children -- Daniel, 8 and Jessica, 3. But surely he is a surrogate parents to many children.
"As a fresh Ph D, my goal was to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering," he told the University of Tulsa Magazine last year. "Now, it is important that my students succeed."
"If I live long enough, I expect many of them to win the Nobel Prize," he says.
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