President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Community-Based Learning Initiative Turns Ten
April 4, 2007
Princeton rightfully takes pride in the rigor of its undergraduate curriculum and in the strength of its students’ commitment to public service. Until comparatively recently, however, opportunities for scholarship and service were seldom integrated, seldom one and the same. Ten years ago, with the support of Princeton Project 55 and a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service administered by the Bonner Foundation, Princeton set about the task of creating a framework in which students could simultaneously learn and serve and, through coursework, independent study, or summer internships, contribute to the work of community organizations while pursuing their academic studies.
The Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI), as this program is known, quickly captured the imagination of students, faculty, and community leaders, generating partnerships that have enriched our curriculum, strengthened the social and economic fabric of our local community, and shown that scholarship is something that can make a practical difference in the lives of others. Each year as many as 300 students undertake challenging research projects that have been designed by community organizations in consultation with our faculty. This is not a typical case of “service learning,” where students volunteer their time in the community and then prepare a paper describing their experience, but rather the application of sophisticated analytical tools and research methods developed in the classroom to real-world problems. The academic nature of our program is underscored by the fact that it is based in the Office of the Dean of the College, where its work is overseen by Associate Dean Peter Quimby.
Nor is CBLI a “top-down” enterprise, where students and faculty use community resources to test hypotheses or generate data in order to answer questions that they—and they alone—have defined. On the contrary, CBLI works closely with its 53 community partners to frame the questions that students study. The Arts Council of Princeton, for example, would like to know how its location affects participation in its programs and what the local economic impact of these programs is. Likewise, the Eden Institute is eager to build on previous student research to further explore the effects of early therapeutic intervention and parental visits on the performance of autistic children. And the New Jersey Sierra Club is interested in working with students using geographic information system technology to document the loss of wetlands in the state.
Over the years, CBLI has given students in fields ranging from sociology to molecular biology to engineering, and from writing seminars to senior theses, a much broader canvas on which to work—one that is predicated on developing a close relationship between Princeton’s faculty and students and the local community. These ties took a new—and exciting—form this winter with the introduction of a course on urban poverty that is completely built around community-based research, rather than treating such research as one component of a larger course. With the help of CBLI, Katherine Newman, the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, developed a course that dovetails with the research needs of Isles, a local community development and environmental organization that has won national and international recognition under the leadership of its founder and president, Marty Johnson ’81. Thanks to this partnership, our students will have an opportunity to examine issues of pressing concern to the residents of Trenton and other urban areas for a full semester in both the classroom and the field—issues such as threats to public health, the challenges posed by prisoner re-entry, and the effects of predatory lending on low-income home ownership. As Professor Newman noted in her course description, “Our ‘job’ will be to understand the scholarly literature as background to these problems, learn the best practices that other cities and communities have developed to deal with them, and design new strategies for Isles as they move forward.”
Another “first” in community-based learning at Princeton was the introduction last fall of Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), an academic program first established at Purdue University by Edward Coyle *80 *82, who is with us this year as a Kenan Visiting Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. EPICS is designed to strengthen the ability of engineering students to introduce into local communities technology-based solutions to social problems. Projects are intended to be multidisciplinary and include non-engineers, to involve students from all four years, and to continue over the course of a number of semesters. In one case, a team of students led by Catherine Peters, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is working to make the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association’s nature center a model of energy efficiency, renewable energy utilization, and water conservation. Another project, headed by Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Michael Littman, involves two partnerships, one with Isles and one with Princeton Young Achievers, an after-school program for disadvantaged children. Our students are helping to convert a factory in nearby Hamilton Township to community use by restoring its historic clock, and they are also developing a course on time-keeping for Princeton Young Achievers. We hope to make EPICS a permanent feature of Princeton’s landscape—part of a broader effort to strengthen the societal dimension of engineering education.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that CBLI should be regarded by other colleges and universities as a leader in the field of community-based learning, a role affirmed last spring when Learn and Serve America awarded us a major three-year grant to develop a national network of colleges and universities engaged in—or planning to engage in—community-based research. This grant will create new information-sharing mechanisms and generate new assessment instruments to measure the impact of CBLI and similar programs on students, faculty, and community partners. We will also be in a position to expand the number of courses at Princeton in which community-based learning plays a role and to involve more faculty in CBLI’s work. Coupled with the ongoing support of the Pace Center and other generous benefactors, CBLI is embarking on its second decade with high hopes for the future and a record of scholarship and service that all of us can celebrate.