By Elisabeth Flynn and Amy Weaver
Photos by Jared Castaldi
“[Drexel Institute] is to be a School of Art, Science and Industry. But it is not so much the love of the beautiful, the knowledge of nature, the power to work, considered as separate elements of human culture, as [it is] the close relation and interdependence of these that will form the subjects of the instruction and training.” -James MacAlister, LLD, first president of Drexel Institute, in his dedication address, December 17, 1891
From day one, Drexel has stood apart from the aloof, “ivory towers” of higher education. Inaugural President James MacAlister believed that one’s self-worth was integrally connected to the unity of science, art and “earnest and sincere labor.” This vision was fortified in 1919 when the cooperative education program— one of the first of its kind—was woven into the fabric of the Drexel curriculum. Today, civically minded professors are further collapsing the gap between the classroom and the world beyond, developing community-based courses that unite the University’s hands-on mission with its humanitarian commitment.
Support for community-based learning (CBL) has been strong across the University— it is, after all, President Fry’s ambitious goal to be the most civically engaged university in the U.S. The College of Arts and Sciences has been quick to enlist, naming a dedicated Coordinator for Community-Based Learning, hosting faculty training workshops, and committing to piloting, evaluating and assessing CBL courses.
The effort has been spearheaded by Assistant Teaching Professor Cyndi Reed Rickards, who assumed the coordinator position in September 2012. Rickards joined Drexel’s criminal justice faculty three years prior, bringing with her more than a decade of experience in higher education and community-based learning. She taught her first CBL course at Drexel in her first term and has been a champion of the methodology at the University ever since.
Myriad Approaches, Endless Opportunities
The unique pedagogies comprising CBL courses are as diverse as the imaginations that create them. “In traditional ‘service-learning,’ all classes take place in the classroom,” says Rickards, “with students working in the community during their personal time. The ‘hybrid’ model allows students to split their course time equally between the classroom and the community.”
One of Rickards’ first CBL courses at Drexel—Prison, Society and You—took a third approach, recently termed “side-by-side” by one of Rickards’ Drexel colleagues. In side-by-side courses, traditional students and community participants learn together, each earning course credit for the work. The prison course paired 15 Drexel students with 15 incarcerated individuals at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in Philadelphia, where the group met weekly to exchange ideas about the criminal justice system, corrections and imprisonment. The course was modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, founded in 1997 by Temple University Professor Lori Pompa. The term “side-by-side” has since been adopted at Drexel to refer to courses in non-correctional settings.
Beyond the coursework and discussions, Rickards says it is the physical environment— the placement in the “real world”—that makes side-by-side courses powerful. “Just the act of being processed into a correctional facility every week, working alongside incarcerated individuals—that itself provides a powerful learning experience,” she says.
While the Inside-Out Program has been implemented at nearly 300 colleges across the U.S., Rickards says Drexel is the only university to expand the approach into other off-campus, community settings.
Documenting A Beautiful Life
Faculty across disciplines have embraced the side-by-side model. Some are excited to breathe new life into a subject they’ve been teaching for decades, others are drawn to the opportunity to explore social justice, and some like the idea of bringing a community connection into the classroom.
Ken Bingham has taught English, creative writing and theater at Drexel since 1989. This summer, he offered his first hybrid CBL course, It’s a Beautiful Life: Writing the Gift of a Hospice Journal, in which pairs of students worked with a hospice patient to write their life journal. In addition to classroom sessions, students met with their patient partners once a week, either in hospice or at the patient’s home. Students were also charged with keeping their own journals and producing a second project—a video, photo album or scrapbook— to document their experience in the course.
The process of sitting with students week after week, talking about their own lives, was a revelation for the patients, says Bingham. “Instead of facing the challenge of death, this course was about the celebration of life.”
Given the seriousness of the subject, sophomore English major Hannah Gittler says the course was not one that could be approached with hesitation, but rather one she and her fellow classmates had to face “head on.” She admits she didn’t know what to expect initially, but was drawn to the idea of helping someone create a tangible history of their life to share with loved ones.
“I can say with all honesty [it] was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my life,” Gittler says. “I learned to look into the heart of a stranger for who they are. I learned what selflessness can do. I learned what I want in my own life.”
Bingham credits Drexel with what he describes as “courageous and out-of-the-box thinking” in developing and offering these transformative CBL courses, and is already looking forward to introducing a new group of students to It’s a Beautiful Life this fall.
“It has been the most incredible teaching experience I’ve ever had,” he adds.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Danie Greenwell, professor of communication, got her CBL start in the spring of 2013 when she co-facilitated the course Talkin’ the Walk: Promoting Social Justice Through Public Speaking and Civic Dialogue with Gina Gendusa, program manager at LIFT. The course partnered traditional Drexel students with clients from LIFT (a non-profit that helps families achieve economic stability) to explore what it means to create change and how to inspire others to start and grow movements.
“That class went so well,” Greenwell says, “that I decided to throw an idea out there for what would basically be my dream: a course on urban farming and community organizing. Luckily, I knew the farmer at Walnut Hill Farm and she happily agreed to co-teach.” The result was a course called Healthy Green Spaces: Urban Farming and Community Organizing, which took place this summer.
Greenwell was impressed by the level of engagement from students: “[They] often stayed after class to chat and I rarely saw cell phones out, unless they were looking up something related to what they were learning.”
Junior Helen Nowotnik is a communication major with a concentration in global journalism. She describes Greenwell’s course as “a holistic learning experience.” Her classmate, senior architectural engineering major Michael Magee, says it was “a perfect combination” of hands-on work in the field, classroom discussions and readings on issues like sustainability, agricultural and food policy, as well as the business of farming.
Taking Advanced Math into High Schools
Humanities professors are not the only ones to take advantage of the CBL model. Dimitrios Papadopoulos is in his fourth year of teaching mathematics at Drexel. Although he typically teaches the freshmen calculus sequence, a mainstay for engineers and math majors, this fall he will introduce a new course to his repertoire: Special Topics: Secondary Education Math Enrichment. The hybrid course will allow 12-15 undergraduate students to spend half of their course time in the Drexel classroom and the other half working in an after-school program at the Freire Charter School in Philadelphia. Each Drexel student will be paired with a Freire student and will be tasked with teaching them the same concepts they’re learning in Papadopoulos’ classroom: things like probability theory, number theory and combinatorics.
Although the topics may seem advanced for teenagers, Papadopoulos says they don’t require much more than basic high school algebra skills. “I want to teach them math and the critical-thinking skills that come with studying math,” says Papdopoulos, who believes that introducing the Freire students to higher-level, or “pure math,” concepts could spark their interest in the field: “These skills are universally much more applicable than calculus,” he adds.
The benefits of this one-on-one teaching go both ways, says Papadopoulos: “The opportunity for [the Drexel students] to teach what they’re learning will contribute a great deal to their understanding of the material.”
The Power of Environment
Coming face to face with real people in real situations brings course material to life in a manner that would be impossible to replicate, even for a seasoned instructor, says Rickards. “For me to lecture about the effects of poverty does not compare to sitting down with someone who is about to lose their home.”
Rickards and her colleagues are clearly passionate about the value CBL adds to a college education. “It speaks to a larger sense of social responsibility,” she says, “It speaks to integrated learning, and it speaks to public purpose.”