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January 27, 1998

Connecting the Classroom to the Community

University Professors Try A New Way To Help Students Learn

by Edmund Tsang

Quietly on university campuses around the nation, a small number of faculty members are bringing their classrooms into the community, guiding their students to apply the knowledge learned in their coursework to address needs in the community. The goal of these faculty members goes beyond creating a learning environment for the students by using real-life examples; they hope that the work the students perform will benefit the community and that the experience will re-connect the college students to their community. Some University of South Alabama professors are using this strategy to teach their students.

Dr. Miriam Fearn, assistant professor of geography, brings the Dog River and the Dog River Clearwater Revival (DRCR), a grassroots organization dedicated to restoring water quality in Dog River, into the classroom for GEO 380 (Field Work in Geography). The needs of DRCR members, who do not always have the expertise and the time to conduct baseline studies or to develop educational outreach programs even though they care deeply about protecting Dog River, matches very well with the course goals, which aim to improve students' research and communication skills, Dr. Fearns said.

Once her students are acquainted with Dog River and its ecological parameters and problems, each student chooses a research topic based on his or her interest, and they work in teams to perform the field work that culminates in making presentations to DRCR members and submitting reports on the Dog River Watershed Study. Some of the reports can be found in the course's web site

Dr. Fearn hopes the studies conducted by the students will result in a Dog River water quality database, including fecal coliform to detect sewage spills and nitrates to reveal fertilizers, that DRCR can use to protect the river, with yearly measurements that can eventually yield valuable trend data. Dr. Fearn hopes to generate future commitment from students or community volunteers so weekly monitoring can be performed as part of the Alabama's Water Watch program to protect the state's river systems.

A cursory exploring of the Dog River Watershed Study web site yields aerial photographs of Dog River, papers on parking lot runoff, mosquitoes, sedimentation, construction site management, and best management practices.

Robert Perry, Rehabilitation Technology Specialist of the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, said "I'm getting a lot of mileage for my agency and for my clients" from the collaboration with Dr. Cecil Ramage of Mechanical Engineering Department at USA, who directs the capstone design course sequence. Mechanical Engineering undergraduates, as part of their senior design experience, work in teams on engineering projects to enhance the quality of life for clients referred by Mr. Perry. Support for the project was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Bioengineering and Research to Aid the Disabled program, which provides up to $500 per project to cover the costs to build new devices or modify existing ones to meet the needs of the clients.

The engineering students spend an academic quarter learning about the clients and their needs to identify the objectives of the design projects. They then design, build, and assemble the components of an engineering device that meets their clients' needs.

"I don't know what I'd have done without the help of these students, who come up with refreshing and innovative ideas to help our clients," added Perry. In the last six years, about 150 engineering students and 50 clients have taken part in the effort.

"The teachers at Kate Sheppard still brag about the rolling slide the engineering students designed for the school. " Perry said. "You know the car with the joy-stick that the students custom-made for a kid? He used it until he outgrew the car; people tell me the car is being passed onto some other kid to use."

Since 1996, first-year mechanical engineering students receiving their first experience with engineering design enrolled in a course taught by the author of this article in which the students' design projects meet education needs in Mobile's middle schools. With a math and a science teachers assigned to each team as the clients, these first-year mechanical engineering students design and produce hardware and software that meet the specifications and needs of their clients' classroom instruction needs. In the last two years, 22 instructional modules have been delivered to 44 middle-school math and science teachers.

Cathy O'Keefe, therapeutic recreation specialist and instructor in Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services, has been instrumental in creating the Child Life Program for the USA Children's and Women's Hospital to help whole families address the fears and anxiety associated with hospitalization and illnesses and uses medical play and age-appropriate developmental play with pediatric patients to aid in the healing process.

For the past thirteen years, her students have returned to the hospital's Treehouse playroom and Class Act education center as part of a course called "Therapeutic Recreation for the Hospitalized Child" to assist Marcia Rolen, the unit's Certified Child Life Specialist, in the implementation of medical and developmental play. Based on a child life model created by the Association for the Care of Children's Health and facility designs utilized by Johns Hopkins University, the program at USA is the only one of its kind in this area. Students serve the children's need for normalized recreation and specific medical play intervention, and the children impart immeasurable wisdom to the students in return, helping them hone their interpersonal and professional skills.

Under Mrs. O'Keefe's guidance, therapeutic recreation students in 1996 carried out a renovation project at Municipal Park that made an area of the park accessible to the disabled. That same year, as part of a course called "Therapeutic Recreation for Physical Disabilities," students again went into the community to assist with the construction of the new playground at Cottage Hill Park and to ensure its accessibility to children with physical challenges.

In January, 1998 a new course was created in the HPELS department called "Intergenerational Recreation and Wellness." With grant assistance from the Veterans Administration via the University of Maryland, this new course joins USA students and elderly persons with disabilities in a health and recreation partnership. Students and elders enjoy recreation and exercise together followed by group discussion on aspects of aging. By inviting senior citizens onto the university campus, an open educational environment is created in which young people and the elderly build relationships of increased understanding and mutual appreciation. Mrs. O'Keefe hopes that the course will address intergenerational stereotypes and biases that have the potential to create prejudice and resentment between today's youth and senior members of the community.

Many students enrolled in the Adult Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) program carry out senior projects in which they apply their course work to provide a service to the community. This usually begins in the Research Methods and Project Development course, where students whose fields of study are related to community needs are referred by the instructor, Dr. Elliott Lauderdale, to Volunteer Mobile or other area agencies. Several students worked or volunteered with community groups and therefore bring an intimate knowledge of complex problems to the university. Then, after writing a proposal that is approved by the AIS department and a faculty supervisor, and sometimes the cooperating community agency, the students begin their research.

Over the 18-year history of the AIS department (formerly known as the Personalized Study Program for Adults, PSPA), numerous senior projects have provided both a capstone experience for students' undergraduate degrees as well as delivering valuable services to the community, according to Lauderdale. As part of the senior projects, these students design programs, analyze data, review pertinent research, and evaluate the effectiveness of programs for community organizations and groups. Two specific examples are prenatal drug, alcohol and tobacco interventions, and a guide for marital rape survivors that were used by various Mobile social-service agencies.

Elliott said the goal of these senior projects is to give students an opportunity to bring the rigor of their integrated disciplines to bear on the solution of community problems, and in the process, create a common place where diverse agencies, communities and the university can cooperate.

For academic programs that have a strong clinical component, such as the College of Nursing and the College of Medicine, providing clinical experience to students can easily dovetail with meeting a community health need.

In the College of Nursing, the Community Nursing program has many courses that have a clinical component, and often students obtain their clinical practice in local non-profit agencies, performing such tasks as blood pressure and other health screening, health awareness education, administration, and collecting health data. The clients served range from pre-schoolers to the elderly , the home-bound, the homeless, as well as those in the work place. Local organizations that have hosted clinical sites include Trinity Day Care and House of Hope in Prichard, which serve pre- schoolers; Cathedral Place, Central Plaza Towers, Gordon Oaks and Baptist Oaks, which serve senior citizens; Travis Day Care, Mulheron, Brewer Center, the Regional School for the Deaf and Blind, which serve physically, developmentally, or mentally challenged persons; Alabama Shipyard, Alabama State Docks and Occupational Health Network, which serve primarily working men; Dumas Wesley Community Center; the Mobile County Health Department; and the Mobile County School System.

In the College of Medicine, some first- and second-year students undertake elective school- based education projects such as drug, pregnancy, and violence prevention; in the third and fourth year, the elective projects will focus on clinical activities such as delivering care to home-bound patients and performing health checks and screens.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL