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Re-Thinking Students’ Community Involvement and Education

Recently I’ve been reading about the LEAP (Liberal Arts and America’s Promise) Challenge from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). Writing in a recent issue of the AACU’s Liberal Education, organization president Carol Gear Schneider explains that “The key concept at the center of the LEAP Challenge is that all college students need to prepare to contribute in a world marked by open or unscripted problems—problems where the right answer is far from known and where solutions are necessarily created under conditions of uncertainty.” And to help students prepare for such contributions, Schneider argues for a particular course of study in which the most important part is an assignment called “Signature Work”:

Signature Work can take many different forms and directions. It may explore an enduring issue, like virtue or altruism or the concept of a just society. It may explore a contemporary issue, like health disparities or housing policy in a specific community or state. It may be part of an ongoing research laboratory, focusing on issues like immune-cell proliferation. But whatever the subject and inquiry strategy, the Signature Work project should require students to integrate and apply their college learning—minimally, across more than one discipline, and frequently, between formal and informal or experiential learning.

This experiential learning, as I understand it, is to involve being engaged in researching problems in the community (broadly defined) and developing real and meaningful solutions to those problems. The LEAP Challenge is different than, say, the kind of service learning where students may take one course in which they are partnered with a local non-profit for a semester to provide them with a community volunteering opportunity; instead, the AACU’s proposal involves making some fundamental changes to an entire course of student that results in a college degree. The “Signature Work” is preceded by coursework that “draws together, quite deliberately, both the analytical inquiry strengths that have long characterized the liberal arts and sciences and the applied learning and professional responsibility strengths that have long characterized professional and career fields.”

I find this very interesting as a teacher who has been thinking lately about the best ways to involve my students in community-based projects in meaningful ways. (For example, partnering the students in my grant-writing course with local non-profit organizations who apply for, receive, and administer grants as part of their core functions.) When done well, these kinds of activities can benefit both students and the local community.

The LEAP Challenge is obviously very ambitious, and I’m interested in hearing from others about any success stories from their own experiences. What kinds of efforts is your campus making to involve students meaningfully in the community? Please share in the comments.

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by Rob Young]

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