UMass Lowell in Touch with Cooperative Experience

02/22/2010
By From the Lowell Sun

By Elaine Donnelly, Joy Mosenfelder and Robert Forrant

Educators know that one way to improve student learning is to connect the classroom to hands-on experiences solving authentic problems.

UMass Lowell is currently engaged in several exciting initiatives to increase experiential learning and has plans to introduce co-operative education to the campus. This service-learning, a growing part of higher education, has a positive effect on student learning, college retention rates, and community development.

According to Indiana University Professor Robert Bringle, "Faculty who use service-learning discover that it brings new life to the classroom, enhances performance in traditional measures of learning, increases student interest in the subject, teaches new problem-solving skills and makes teaching more enjoyable."

In 2009, the Corporation for National and Community Service awarded a "Learn and Serve America" grant to the five UMass campuses to support a statewide effort to increase student involvement in their communities. Competition for these grants was fierce as only one in 10 proposed projects receives funding.

UMass won one of 36 grants awarded nationwide. Through the grant, UMass Lowell students will have expanded opportunities to supplement their academic experience by participating in such efforts as mentoring projects at local K-12 schools, pursuing alternative school breaks working in high-poverty Massachusetts communities, receiving IRS training to help local families with tax preparation, and assisting in worker-education programs.

The University's Francis College of Engineering is already on the cutting edge of course-related community involvement with its Service Learning In the College of Engineering (SLICE) program (http://slice.uml.edu/). The college received a $1 million three-year grant from the National Science Foundation in 2005 to establish service-learning in every department in the college.

"UMass Lowell is the only engineering program with NSF funding that is doing this through the entire college, not just a department," Engineering Dean John Ting said. "In that respect, we lead the nation."

Service-learning efforts include the Assistive Technology program, which engages senior engineering students in creating and modifying products for the disabled and the Assistive Technology Design Fair, which does the same with high-school students. The energy engineering program leads the Village Empowerment Project, which has installed 60 student-designed solar, lighting and water supply systems in 24 villages in Peru. Faculty-student groups, led by UMass Lowell Professor John Duffy, have visited the area numerous times and worked closely with local residents.

The School of Health and Environment has a course designed to serve as a service-learning experience in the fall semester of students' senior year in Health Education. Students participate in community health in Lowell for a minimum of 40 hours. Students provide the community health organization with their time, knowledge and effort, and gain tremendous experience in the organization, development, implementation and/or evaluation of Community Health Education and Promotion Projects.

Among other service-learning projects, Dave Turcotte, UMass Lowell adjunct faculty member and senior program manager for the Center for Family, Work and Community, teaches a graduate level course on sustainable housing, in which students partner with an area-housing advocacy organization to help with their research needs.

Diana Archibald, associate professor of English, directs a community-based writing project in which her students work with organizations to help them with their media needs.

Faculty members in community psychology infuse many of their courses with an examination of community problems as do faculty in the Department of Regional Economic and Social Development.

Working together with the community to improve student learning and regional development we feel is central to the concept of public higher education.

But, despite the advantages of service-learning, it is not so easy for the faculty and potential community partners to always make effective matches. But, forming such connections is needed to engage students in projects that can foster social development and job creation.

To quote UMass Lowell Professor William Lazonick: "Engagement with local business enterprises and community organizations demands an academic structure that both integrates the insights of the specialized disciplines into a broad view of how the world works and has the 'absorptive capacity' to learn from our interactions with 'real-world' actors." It is dialogue and reflection, the centerpieces of service-learning, that make this happen.

By establishing co-operative education experiences and more service-learning opportunities, a virtuous circle is established: UMass Lowell expands its capacity to meet student educational needs and at the same time supports the community. Residents of the Merrimack Valley then benefit from the university's stated core values, which include supporting "the development of sustainable technologies and communities." And, the university truly fulfills one of its important missions to enhance the social and economic development of the Merrimack Valley and beyond!

Service-learning opportunities are growing at UMass Lowell. The Learn and Serve grant, coordinated by the Center for Family Work and Community (www.uml.edu/centers/CFWC/) wants to connect even more professors and their courses with the community in the coming months.

As we struggle through what sometimes seems like an endless "jobless recovery," the Merrimack Valley needs to muster its resources to restore opportunity. UMass Lowell's collaborations with community-based organizations will help to form the foundation for a better future for the institution, its students, and the community.

While exciting progress is being made connecting UMass Lowell students and faculty with the Greater Lowell community, there are untapped areas where partnerships between campus and community would benefit both. The Learn and Serve grant team and the university's Division of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are going to provide seed funding for more nonprofit and faculty collaborations.

To get the word out, a "Service Learning" summit is scheduled for Thursday at 8 a.m. in Alumni Hall on the university's north campus. This forum is designed to make matches between the faculty and community partners so that exciting new collaborations can emerge.

Community members who would like to attend the summit can contact Elaine Donnelly at the Center for Family, Work and Community at Elaine_Donnelly@uml.edu for more information.