Home Newsletter What’s Happening in Civic Engagement? Making a Difference, That’s What!
What’s Happening in Civic Engagement? Making a Difference, That’s What!

Instructional Development Newsletter: Spring 2007

Casey LaCore, Director, Office of Civic Engagement
Stacy Mettner, AmeriCorps Vista Volunteer Coordinator

Civic engagement offers students relevant and valuable exposure to, knowledge about, and experience in their community. Their assignments move them outside the classroom and into Duluth’s schools and community organizations where they build relationships with people and learn to make connections while simultaneously receiving college credit. This preparation for life outside and after college, is recognized by many faculty members as key to a successful educational experience for students.

Making a Difference: DAVID BEARD and CHRIS CARROLL

In his upper division composition class for engineers, David Beard’s students are learning effective writing techniques by focusing on something valuable to our Duluth community—the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial (CJMM) commemorating the lives of three young, African-American men who were lynched in Duluth in 1920. In partnership with the CJMM Education Board, students videotape speeches by CJMM board members. The completed and edited videotapes will be used in educational outreach to inform others about the memorial. In addition, Beard’s students provide the board with documents they have researched and written. Activities based on professional correspondence, research, and the creation of final documents are more than just fulfilling course requirements; when linked to civic engagement, they allow students to know that they are making a difference.

In another civic engagement project, Carroll and Beard are collaboratively incorporating Beard’s Advanced Writing: Engineering into Carroll’s Engineering Professionalism. The composition class is designed to teach students how to write professionally using research methods, designing documents, editing, collaborating, and considering ethics. Chris Carroll’s class focuses on helping students understand engineering’s relationship to the environment, society, ethics, sustainability, and economics. Additionally, both Composition and Engineering students have focused heavily on the communication process. Using techniques and concepts from their respective courses and sharing guest lecturers, the two classes proposed making a compact disc with the Twin Ports Wind Orchestra.

Working for Social Change: MITRA EMAD

By its very nature, Mitra Emad’s senior seminar and capstone course in Cultural Studies is built around civic engagement. Stepping out of the classroom to get fieldwork experience is key to understanding more about the study of cultures. Emad gives her students an opportunity to relate theory to practice and classroom to community. Her students learn to follow the example of current professionals in this field who produce texts, documentary videos, as well as experiential films for academic audiences and the public.

Students in Cultural Studies are free to select a relevant issue within the Duluth community and to explore its effect on people. They do this through interviews and meetings with professionals to understand how and why issues exist. For example, they can choose to focus on the effects of media, or notions of body image among teenage girls. After compiling their data, students create a video presentation of their findings for viewing by the general public. By bringing information on a topic to the affected population, awareness is created and social change is inaugurated.

Stacy Mettner observed that, as a college student, it was easy to feel like social change was out of her reach. “It was brought about by older, wiser, politically involved professionals. I feel this is a common misconception by students, especially when sitting in a classroom, writing papers and taking tests. In my Senior Seminar, I had the chance to be an active citizen through civic engagement and realized that students can become agents of change through research and interaction with community members and professionals.”

While issues for the semester are local in nature, the skills learned in studying them have broad implications for studying populations, no matter the location. Furthermore, in professions that require fieldwork, vicarious experience is not enough. Civic engagement is crucial.

Impacting Society: JULIE ERNST

Julie Ernst employs civic engagement as a tool for learning the basics of recreation in her course, Introduction to Recreation. To help students grasp the relationship between recreation and leisure and to study their impact on modern society, Ernst requires experiential learning outside the classroom. While community engagement offers answers to her students, it can raise even more questions about how recreation affects groups of people.

Working with the Darland Connection and the Office of Civic Engagement at the beginning of each semester, her students choose from selected community sites that offer a recreational volunteer experience, e.g., helping with the Special Olympics, getting involved with Hartley Nature Center or the Aquarium. Volunteer Coordinator, Stacy Mettner met with Julie and contacted local organizations to make the match between academic curriculum and community offerings and needs. Participating in meaningful activities, seeing and experiencing the relationship between the course-related help they provided in the community gave them solid information about how recreation impacts modern society. This knowledge was shared in presentations for their peers at semester’s end. From these experiences students gain insights into organizations which provide recreation, appropriate professional communication techniques, short- or long-term career opportunities, and developing working relationships with peers as well as with authority.

Studying Behavior: KAREN MARSH

Karen Marsh has incorporated “Psychology in the Community” into her General Psychology course for both fall and spring semesters which requires each student to acquire ten hours of civic engagement. Funded by the mini-grant she received from the Office of Civic Engagement at UMD, this semester she placed 300 students as volunteers in the schools and community organizations. They can choose from a variety of options, which include but are not limited to the following: tutoring in classrooms at the Duluth Public Schools and the surrounding area; playing with children at a daycare, preschool or after-school program; helping at a soup kitchen or a nursing home; playing sports with those in the Special Olympics; walking dogs at an animal shelter; or interacting with animals at the Great Lakes Aquarium or the Lake Superior Zoo.

Scientifically studying behavior and learning about the biological, social, and cognitive facets of psychology, students develop keener eyes for assessing situations, learn to use effective research methods, and to discover human development. Depending on their volunteer sites and observational opportunities, they also look into personality, mental disorders, and therapy. These concepts can be addressed in the classroom, but are better if observed or experienced. These transactions are not one-sided, however. Because they are offering their time, energy and passion to organizations that thrive because of volunteers, they are contributing to the quality of life in Duluth and the surrounding area.

Professor Marsh recognizes the power of building civic engagement into this psychology course. The results are displayed at a poster session at the end of each semester, where students display their discoveries for the class and the general public in the UMD Ballroom. Their posters explain the connections they made between their experiences and the  theories they were studying in class. General Psychology is a prerequisite to all of the upper division psychology courses, and, therefore, every student who takes Marsh’s section of this course, is able to determine early if practicing “psychology in the community” is something they want to pursue.


Experiential curricula appeal to many different learning styles. All students gain a deeper understanding by going beyond listening and taking notes to actually observing and applying their learning in real world situations. By civically engaging students, these teachers are making it possible for them to learn in a variety of ways and are preparing them for the future. In studying behavior and working for social change, these students are already impacting society by making a difference.

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