By Elizabeth Otto, Jamie Peterson, and Elizabeth Dunens
Any faculty member who has seen students discover a new perspective from a community-engaged learning project knows that these experiences are valuable for a student’s personal development. Do these experiences also give students an advantage in their job search after graduation and in other professional contexts?
Working across disciplines, the three of us began collaborating last August to design and execute a research study to explore the answer to that question. Our aim is to provide an evidence-based argument that community-engaged learning (CEL) at St. Kate’s is a useful and valid component of professional education. We also anticipate finding transferable skills that are unique to St. Catherine because of our women, Catholic and liberal arts-focused mission.
Sometimes Research Is Fun and Games
The basis of our project is the rubric created by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to assess civic engagement. Although we found this rubric to be a helpful way to organize and frame our thoughts about CEL, we needed more clearly identified behavioral outcomes. Therefore, another potential benefit of our work will be to more clearly identify behavioral outcomes associated with the categories of the rubric. These behavioral outcomes will be useful to faculty and others attempting to use the AAC&U civic engagement rubric to measure student learning.
Our challenge in designing this study was to find a way to gather stakeholders in community-engaged learning, get them talking about CEL experiences, and gather data from them about behavioral outcomes of CEL projects.
We identified the stakeholders as students, faculty, and community partners from organizations that work with St. Kate’s. To motivate participants, we needed to find a source of funding for participant incentives and to design a gathering that would have some appeal.
The St. Kate’s Mission Chairs graciously addressed our funding challenge after we applied for a Mission Funds Grant in December 2017 and met with the chairs in January to describe our project. We explained that this project aims to establish that as students live out our Catholic mission by taking part in CEL, they also engage in valuable preparation for careers. If we believe that a community-engaged liberal arts education at St. Kate’s enables students to develop attitudes and behaviors that prepare them for success in their personal and professional lives, we need to strengthen our evidence-based argument that CEL paired with a liberal arts curriculum, is an advantage for graduates as they are seeking employment.
With the funding hurdle overcome, our next challenge was to design a gathering that would get stakeholders to talk about what students do and say when they participate in community-engaged learning.
Our answer to that challenge is a board gamed named The Game of Community-Engaged Learning (because all of our creativity was expended with the generation of the game idea itself).
All players are asked to pretend that they are students as they progress through the game. Each time players land on a colored square, they must draw a card of that color. Each card has a unique scenario and question based on one of the categories of the AAC&U civic engagement rubric. The players must read the question out loud, then also answer it out loud.
For example, a question from the “Civic Action and Reflection” category:
You see in the news that state legislators are discussing a piece of legislation that you really oppose. You think other St. Kate’s students would also oppose this proposed legislation if they knew about it. What do you do to try to mobilize your fellow students, and how will you make your views known to your state legislators?
Capturing the Lived Experiences of CEL
In three data gathering sessions that happened on campus in the last week of April and the first week of May, research participants sat together in mixed groups of faculty, students, and community partners to play the board game. They talked about their own experiences and what they saw and heard from students in community-engaged learning.
Immediately after playing the game, participants moved to a computer lab where they each completed an online survey asking them to give examples of what students say and what students do when engaged in CEL experiences.
Our next step is to review the collected data to find common themes. Our focus will be on naming transferable skills students develop in CEL experiences. We hope to provide a resource for St. Catherine University students to use in framing their community engagement experiences as evidence of qualifications for paid work in employment interviews. This work will also benefit the faculty at St. Kate’s by providing them with further justification for integrating CEL into their curriculum as well as language regarding how to talk with students about CEL outcomes.
Community-engaged learning is one of the ways our students continue the legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph and live out the Catholic Social Teaching values of our institution. The goal with our work is to establish that CEL is not only mission-centered and valuable for personal growth, but is also career-centered and essential to a student’s professional growth.
Elizabeth Otto is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at St. Catherine University.
Jamie Peterson is Associate Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at St. Catherine University.
Elizabeth Dunens is Associate Director of Community Work and Learning at St. Catherine University