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Course redesign leads to sociology students conducting research for local nonprofits

Sociology major Jenna Brown presented her research project with fellow senior Madison Kopale in December 2018. The pair conducted research for the local YWCA.

What motivates ISU students to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity? In what ways can the YWCA use RSVP to encourage intergenerational relationships/programs? What barriers does ISU face in implementing a sustainable food system?

Students in Christopher Wellin’s Senior Experience course conducted qualitative research for local nonprofit organizations during the Fall 2018 semester.

These research questions and many more were explored last December as 15 Illinois State University seniors presented their capstone research projects to their peers and other invited guests. The students, all seniors majoring in sociology, worked with local nonprofit organizations to conduct qualitative research addressing the needs of the partner organizations.

The students’ partnerships with those local organizations and the strong civic engagement component of the course were thanks to Associate Professor Christopher Wellin and his participation in the Civic Engagement Course Redesign program through the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT).

While CTLT has been offering course design programs for many years, the Civic Engagement Course Redesign workshops began as specialized cohorts six years ago. The workshops were originally planned to develop courses for Illinois State University’s Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility Minor, but the purpose has since broadened to increase the overall number of courses offered that include civic engagement components.

“This is one way that we can support the Illinois State University’s commitment to the values of civic engagement, one of the core values in Educate Connect Elevate: Illinois State – The Strategic Plan for Illinois’ First Public University 2018-2023,” said Dana Karraker, faculty development coordinator at CTLT. “As faculty intentionally design courses that incorporate elements of civic engagement across the curriculum, we broaden the opportunities for students to learn about engaged citizenship.”

That was Wellin’s goal as well in participating in the course redesign project last summer—expanding the dimension of civic engagement within SOC 300: Senior Experience Seminar—and he was excited about the outcome.

“It was invaluable,” said Wellin. “Not only for deepening my understanding of civic engagement as a component of college teaching but, also, for introducing members of the CTLT seminar to a group of community non-profits who are committed to strengthening ties between their agencies and the University.”

Illinois faculty and staff meet with representatives from community partners during a session of the 2018 CTLT Civic Engagement Course Redesign.

The Civic Engagement Course Redesign workshop takes place over four days, and participants learn about several aspects of civic engagement and course design. During the process, they’re supported by their cohort, a faculty development coordinator from CTLT, and staff from the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.

During the process, it is at the discretion of the individual faculty member to decide how they would like to redesign their courses to incorporate civic engagement.

“Some may want to refine one of their course outcomes,” said Karraker. “Some choose to revamp their entire course. Some may be interested in connecting with a community partner for a service learning project but not all civic engagement requires this. All participants will come away with redesigned course learning outcomes related to civic engagement and assessments to measure those outcomes.”

Community partnerships were extremely important to Wellin as he redesigned his course. In the months prior to the students beginning their research, Wellin worked with potential partner organizations to reach shared understandings about the nature and goals of the research projects. He plans to continue fostering the existing partnerships in the future.

“There is a natural reciprocity involved in our partnerships,” said Wellin. “Agencies provide clear and relevant questions for inquiry, while students provide the expertise, time, and commitment that are necessary for carrying out a semester-long research project.”

Many partner organizations would not have the staff capacity to devote to this type of research project, so the organizations benefit from the expertise of the students’ research. The students also benefit from the projects.

“These partnerships offer students tangible evidence of how their critical thinking and research skills matter, beyond the campus, and inevitably they also build professional references and knowledge that is needed in the transition from college to their next chapters in their lives,” Wellin said,

Callie Schmidt, Jacquelene Rodriguez, and Molly Meyer present the research they conducted for the Community Health Care Clinic as part of SOC 300.

Wellin’s students agree. Jenna Brown ’18, a sociology major who graduated in December, experienced personal growth through her qualitative research project with the YWCA.

“It pushed me outside my comfort zone talking to people in the community,” said Brown. “Prior to this experience, I was so worried and insecure about my ability to talk to people, but being the interviewer gave me a new found confidence in myself and my knowledge.”

Callie Schmidt, a sociology major who graduated in December, worked with the Community Health Care Clinic on her qualitative research. Schmidt echoed the value of working with local nonprofit organizations. “I strongly believe that civic engagement projects and partnering with local organizations in doing this type of research is important. It gives students experiential opportunities to learn in ‘real world’ contexts and develop skills of community engagement while affording community partners opportunities to address significant needs.”

Applications are now being accepted for the 2019 Civic Engagement Course Redesign cohort. Visit the CTLT website for more information. Applications are due March 30, and the workshop sessions take place in June.

The CTLT Civic Engagement Course Redesign is sponsored in part by the American Democracy Project and a State Farm Course Development Grant.