Princeton Weekly Bulletin May 3, 1999
T H E P R E S I D E N T ' S P A G E
By Harold T. Shapiro
In 1997 Princeton launched a new effort to enrich the learning experience of students by identifying community projects that can be incorporated effectively into courses to complement classroom learning with practical applications.
Six students in Professor of Molecular Biology Lee Silver's Human Genetics, Reproduction and Public Policy developed a course for middleschoolers as a CBLI project. Held in Lewis Thomas Lab, the course introduced concepts in molecular biology to 25 students, recruited with the help of Toby Peterson of the Clay Street Learning Center. The students were seniors Jaffet Ghebretnsae, Evelyn Hsieh (c), Toshio Kimura (l), Erica McCormick and Ko Yamada and junior Asha Yancy.
This is not a new idea at Princeton. Woodrow Wilson School task forces, for example, have been applying academic studies to the solution of practical problems for many years. One recent task force's proposals for mixed-use development around transit stops were incorporated last fall into Maryland's Smart Growth program.
The Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI) seeks to broaden these opportunities to students in other departments while focusing on projects in the greater Princeton area. Since the initiative began, faculty members in sociology, chemistry, politics, African American studies, environmental studies and American studies, as well as the Woodrow Wilson School, have worked with students and community leaders to develop courses that apply knowledge and analytic tools gained in the classroom to pressing issues that affect our local communities.
The courses have succeeded in carrying out the initiative's twofold objective: to make learning itself a genuine form of service, and to enhance both the effectiveness of our teaching programs and the quality of life in the community. Here are examples.
Professor of Politics Eric Oliver's course on urban politics deals specifically with the problems of inner cities. He saw CBLI as a way to offer his students the kind of firsthand exposure to urban environments that he believed was central to their understanding of course material. After examining CBLI's database of community-based organizations, Professor Oliver found two community partners who could work effectively with him and his students. For one of them, the Urban League of Trenton, the students evaluated the impact of the recent political ascendancy of African Americans in the Trenton community on education, health, social welfare, crime and finance.
The success of Professor Oliver's course depended on the selection of suitable community partners and appropriate research projects. Associate Dean of the College Hank Dobin, who leads CBLI's governing board, devotes significant time and effort to making successful matches. Over 40 organizations have expressed a desire to participate in CBLI, including local religious, civic and arts groups; branches of national organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity; and educational institutions.
Candace Jackson '00 developed a CBLI project in conjunction with the seminar Educating a New Majority, directed by Richard Hope, visiting lecturer with rank of professor in sociology. Hope described the course as "an examination of minority education in the United States in the context of the sociology of education and intergroup relations." Jackson described her project:
I aided the YWCA of Princeton After School Program (YWCA ASP) with research they had neither the time nor manpower to complete: measuring the effectiveness of its after school programs in terms of the social and academic competency of its students.
What did I do? I researched the literature on after school programs, much of it produced by the US Department of Education. That was the static library and Internet work.
The fun part was going to the YWCA ASP. I interviewed the director of the YWCA ASP, who oversees 13 ASP programs in the area, and chose one site, Community Park Elementary School, on which to focus. I visited Community Park between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. during the month of December. I interviewed the five-person after school staff there, observed the interaction between children and staff, and played with the children. I attended a performance the children gave for parents and talked with parents about their experience of the ASP. I also interviewed the school principal. To think that I could interact with children, who always make me forget the frequent stress of academics, and complete my "school work" at the same time!
Then I combined my observation at Community Park with my research on after school programs nationally and compared the mission and practices of the YWCA ASP to the national ideal of after school programs. I found that the YWCA ASP was, in many ways, a model after-school program: it serves a positive role in the academic and social lives of students.
I am grateful for the opportunity to write a paper that was locally relevant and useful. Many students at some point stop and think "Why am I writing this paper?" In this case, I had a sense of purpose, a well defined audience and a lot of opportunities for fun while completing my project. The CBLI opportunity also came at a time in my Princeton career when I had given up volunteerism in an effort to concentrate more on my academics. The CBLI paper reinserted community interaction back into my life!
One of the most active local environmental groups in the Princeton area, the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, formed a productive connection with Professor Michael Celia's introductory environmental science course on Causes of Environmental Perturbations. Using data from the Watershed Association's extensive monitoring program, students developed course projects on topics related to the association's efforts to identify fair and balanced solutions to the region's environmental problems.
Professor Miguel Centeno of the Department of Sociology thought that the growing community of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants in Princeton might provide opportunities for his students to learn more about the US Latino population. The students experienced the challenges of conducting surveys on such seemingly simple questions as income distribution. They also came to appreciate a segment of the Princeton community with which few students interact.
Students in Lecturer in Sociology Patricia Fernandez-Kelly's freshman seminar on Race, Poverty, and Public Policy worked with the Apoyo/Princeton Immigrant Rights League to produce a written history of the Guatemalan community in Princeton. One member of the class summarized the mutual benefits of this combination of course work and research commenting: "not only will [this organization] receive valuable research for long-term planning and educational purposes, but the participating students will have a richer understanding of the interrelationships between poverty, education reform, and charter school public policy and of the ways in which public policies affect the lives of immigrants."
This very positive feedback from students is echoed by faculty who characterize experiences made possible by these collaborations as powerful pedagogical tools. Curriculum development grants from the President's 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education have provided initial seed funding for CBLI, together with a grant from the Corporation for National Service administered by the Bonner Foundation. An endowment to honor Dr. Carl Fields, former assistant dean of the college and the first African American dean in the Ivy League, has been created to support the further development of partnerships between student learning and service, connections that Dr. Fields devoted his career to fostering.
From my perspective, CBLI not only strengthens our commitments to teaching and service, but helps to prepare our students to apply more successfully the knowledge and skills they acquire in the classroom to the needs of the communities in which they will live and work.
To learn more, please refer to CBLI's Web page at www.princeton.edu/~cbli/ or e-mail email@example.com.
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