Extending Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls

April 27, 2018

Panel discussion with Jason Corburn, Pat Steenland, Nicholas Swanson-Hysell and Andrea Wise

Experiential learning can accelerate students’ learning, help them bridge the gap between theory and practice, and increase student engagement in course content. It can teach skills like critical thinking, decision-making, and problem solving, and it pushes students to think about the content from a “big picture” perspective.  How are UC Berkeley faculty incorporating experiential learning and engaged scholarship into the classroom? On April 11, 2018, Jason Corburn (Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health), Nicholas Swanson-Hysell (Earth and Planetary Science), and Pat Steenland (Reading & Composition) participated in a panel titled, “Extending Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls.” The panel was facilitated by Andrea Wise, Associate Director in the Public Service Center.  Each faculty member shared ways they incorporate these methods into their courses, their motivation to do so, and challenges and tips they have learned.

Jason Corburn, who has taught American Cultures Engaged Scholarship courses, believes the university can be an agent of change, and that we should invest in long-term partnerships with outside communities. In his teaching, Jason works in a participatory and client-based manner.  During his panel remarks, Jason critiqued the ways universities can operate with an “extraction mindset,” seeing communities as places to draw upon for data, stories, and people: “How do we rethink the role of a university in a broader community? [...]We’re facing so many inequalities and challenges here in the Bay Area, nationally, and internationally that we need to see the university more as a change agent, thus the institution itself needs to rethink how it operates, and the work we are talking about here is part of that larger change effort.”

In his teaching, Jason encourages students to use their education to address real world problems with a real client. While this way of teaching can be a lot of work, he sees the long-term engagement and relationships with partners as essential to success. In the classroom, he aims to provide the necessary ideas and frameworks for students to learn key concepts, then opens the space for community partners to lead conversations. Regarding his own engaged scholarship, Jason says, “I don’t see a separation in my own work between my research and my teaching… my research is community engaged. I really try to understand local knowledge….My work recognizes there’s a whole host of experts, not just folks with PhDs.”

Nicholas takes a project-based approach to teaching his “Field Geology and Digital Mapping” course, connecting students to the real world as they collect geologic data throughout the Berkeley/Oakland Hills. He says, “One of my primary aims of my teaching and the field-based components of it [...] is to empower students to be making their own observations… so [they understand...] they can be gathering knowledge, to be trusting that they have the skill to make an observation, to collect a piece of data and then to see that is a thing of value.” As students make their own discoveries, he works hard to help students make sense of and integrate the knowledge they discover with the knowledge they have gained in other contexts. He finds the projects offer them more technical tools on how to process data and, while he understands that courses taught in this way may not cover every aspect of the material that a traditional lecture-based class would, he has faith that it furthers students by “developing their critical thinking skills and the ability to engage with the material.” Keys to his success include making the project central to the content he covers, preparing students for the experiences, and articulating his expectations clearly.  Nicholas loves that teaching in this manner, which is usually with smaller class sizes, allows him to get to know students in a more complete way.

Pat Steenland teaches “Researching Water in the West,” a College Writing course she hopes can be “the place where ideas can be exchanged without fear” and a space that “introduces students to the intellectual life of the university.” Pat loves using innovative ways of teaching, including teaching with primary sources and community-based research.  She developed a connection with leaders of the Owens Valley Paiute, who continue to remain engaged in a water rights dispute. Some of the materials related to this dispute are housed in the Bancroft Library. Pat says, “We are incorporating tribal knowledge into the university classroom because it has been missing. Why did this knowledge not gain any traction in the first place? What is the university’s intersection in it?”  Underscoring similar ideas to Jason, Pat says, “It takes time and investment. It takes relationships.” A key aspect of her course is when tribal leaders come for over a week and spend time in class with the students. She loves getting to see students from different backgrounds engaging with the leaders, and she feels it is critical to integrate indigenous knowledge into the classroom in ways where it is “both protected and amplified.”

For more information about incorporating engaged scholarship or community engagement into a course, please contact the Public Service Center or The American Cultures Center. To learn about other experiential learning methods, contact The Center for Teaching & Learning.