In Community-Engaged Learning, a course taught for the first time this past fall, Mount Allison students worked with middle-school students, their teachers, and community-members, on projects that explored areas ranging from bird studies, robotics and coding, to creative writing, and the environment.
This was one of the first projects implemented under the Mount Allison Research Partnerships for Education and Community Engagement (R-PEACE), a group of Mount Allison researchers whose goal is not only to research engagement but to work with and give back to the community. The project was coordinated on behalf of R-PEACE by religious studies department head Dr. Fiona Black and Heather Dixon, principal of Marshview Middle School.
For students, community-engaged learning is learning that directly involves the community. As well as the usual course work, students engage with a specific community organization and help advance its goals.
Engage!, as the program is called, consisted of 16 different passion projects within the middle school.
“These projects were selected by Marshview students who were asked what sorts of things they would be interested in doing,” explains Dr. Mike Fox, geography and environment professor and member of R-PEACE. “And each project had a community volunteer, a teacher, and a Mount Allison student associated with it.”
Every Wednesday afternoon from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., Marshview students divided into these project-groups. As an example of the diversity of projects available, Lisa Barney from Birds Study Canada came every week and brought bird-science to students, while in another project two staff-members from the Owens Art Gallery offered the opportunity to learn about art.
Laura Manuge, an honours student in environmental studies, also worked with the Bird Studies group.
“Community-engaged learning allowed me to participate in an experiential learning opportunity like no other. My project topic meant that I had the unique experience of learning alongside an enthusiastic group of middle-school students,” she says. “On top of this, I gained so many practical skills that helped navigate a variety of working relationships and facilitate outdoor learning, which will be extremely valuable for me as I want to pursue a career in outdoor education. Furthermore, community-engaged learning proved that meaningful learning can take all sorts of different shapes and forms and I feel very grateful to have been part of such a fulfilling experience."
The class was taught by Trish Altass, a researcher on school engagement. In their course, students first learned the academic theory of community-engaged learning and what the school system is trying to achieve. They then worked with the community and reflected on what they had learned. It gave students experience in project planning, management, and important professional connections.
Fox, who was the project-leader for the environment group, asked students to identify environmental issues they wanted to address. They said they disliked the abundance of disposable plastics that are distributed in restaurants and discarded after only a single use. In particular, they were interested in trying to reduce this waste. The students proceeded to develop a survey and used it to interview restaurant owners in Sackville.
Fox states, “I was really impressed. In their response to questions about plastic straws, the restaurant owners said ‘That is a good question, why do we give everyone a straw?’ The students suggested only giving straws if they are asked for. So, the restaurant owners were learning from the students.”
Fox explained that the students also looked at cost structure, how much waste is being generated, and then they considered possible solutions, such as allowing people to bring their own containers into restaurants. In the final phase of the project, students presented their findings to the town council and wrote an article for the Sackville Tribune Post.
“The program is definitely contributing to the university-community relationship in Sackville, but it is also contributing to the provincial department of education. And, from a research standpoint, we have some qualitative and quantitative success indicators,” says Fox.
Photo caption: Marshview Middle School students visited the Owens Art Gallery regularly last term as part of Engage!, a community-based learning project organized by a Mount Allison University class.