Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Civic Learning in the Major: Fusing Academic Disciplines and Community Engagement


Facing today’s most urgent challenges takes more than disciplinary knowledge. It takes good citizens.

To prepare students for their future roles as leaders, humanitarians, and innovators, academic departments across the country are infusing civic learning into the traditional disciplinary curricula of their majors.

Guided by seminal resources by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), including A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy's Future (2012); Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine across the Disciplines (2015); and VALUE rubrics (2009), the Civic Learning in the Major by Design project asks institutions to document how they designed, implemented, and assessed civic learning in their major.

Featured in the Fall 2017 issue of Peer Review and in a series of case studies on the AAC&U website, these departments span STEM fields, social sciences, and arts and humanities. Below, faculty from three majors that were featured in online case studies—Organizational Leadership at Fort Hays State University, Humanities and Communication at California State University–Monterey Bay, and Geology and Earth Sciences at Wittenberg University—share their stories.

Organizational Leadership, Fort Hays State University

Since it began in 1993, the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University, a regional comprehensive university in Hays, Kansas, has been based on three foundational themes: creating change, collaborating, and working toward collective and common purposes.

Taught in three locations (in-person on the Fort Hays campus, online, and at two institutions in China), the program offers a major, minor, and certificate in Organizational Leadership scaffolded around three core courses.

The first course is the “what course,” said Jill Arensdorf, chair and associate professor of leadership studies. “What is leadership? What is change? How do you get people involved in change processes?”

Next, the “how course“ teaches students to enact change by working in teams, solving problems, and resolving conflicts.

In the third course, Field Work in Leadership Studies, students work with a partner organization in the community to complete a project that makes a significant contribution. Students identify an area of need, write a strategic plan that must be approved by the faculty member and community partner, meet with the partner several times throughout the semester, write weekly reflections, and troubleshoot their project’s progress in class.

Presenting DSNWK a check for $9,000.

This capstone course, which students take as sophomores or juniors, varies slightly between the on-campus and online modalities, but they all have one thing in common: “Students come in pretty nervous,” Arensdorf said. Every assessment requires “implementing the concepts that they've learned up until this course when faced with real problems, real conflict, and real change. And that is scary to most students.”

In spring 2018, a five-person student team on the Fort Hays campus worked with Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas (DSNWK), an organization that serves people with developmental disabilities. The team set a three-month goal of raising $10,000 through a dance recital featuring a local dance studio and DSNWK’s clients.

During the semester, the group dropped from five students to three, leaving them to work harder as they sought sponsorships, developed marketing materials, and sold tickets. In the end, they earned $9,000.

“This service learning field work course gives students a laboratory to practice, to fail, to make mistakes, and to have successes. And students really learn from that,” Arensdorf said. “Multiple students have said to me that at the onset, this class was just about getting a good grade, but mid-to-late term they cared more about the success of the project and working with the community partner. Their motivation changed.”

Online and in China, students face different challenges. Online, students work individually rather than in teams. Though faculty act as coaches and liaisons, students must find and build their own community partnerships. In China, where service learning is not common, faculty must communicate with partner organizations about what service learning is, what students will be doing, and how student projects can benefit the organization.

                                      Fort Hays students in China.

But in any modality, infusing civic engagement within a major and building community partnerships will not happen overnight.

“Time, reputation, and the use of media have really educated the community about this class,” Arensdorf said.

To help drive initiatives forward, Arensdorf finds support from other faculty and administrators across campus. “If you're lucky enough like we were to have a provost as a champion, then the support is kind of easy,” Arensdorf said. “But if you don't enjoy that support yet, try to find champions at all levels, starting at the department level.”

Departments can also drum up support by using assessment to showcase learning gains. In the introductory “what course” and in the capstone field work course, students take the Social Change Leadership Inventory, an assessment invented by the department’s founder, Curt Brungardt. The department has years of data showing statistically significant improvements to students’ understanding of social change and ability to enact it. They also use a final effectiveness rubric based on department-wide outcomes to assess the final field work project and compare it to students’ performance in upper-level capstone courses.

“If you can create change in a civic setting you can do it anywhere,” Arensdorf said. “It’s a great opportunity for students to learn and develop skill sets that are transferable to every single thing that they do in their life. That’s a pretty bold statement, but we truly believe that.”

Humanities and Communication, California State University–Monterey Bay

At California State University–Monterey Bay (CSUMB), civic engagement has been a focus of the Humanities and Communication major since 1994, when the university was founded.

“It was designed as a degree that would cross over lots of disciplinary boundaries and give students knowledge and skills that would be applied in the service of a social good,” said David Reichard, professor of history and legal studies.

Students start with the MajorPro Seminar, an introduction to the different disciplines, the department’s core civic principles, and the topics and questions later courses will explore. They build off this foundation through several other core courses focusing on: (1) Deliberation and Advocacy, in which students work collaboratively to analyze multiple perspectives and craft arguments; (2) Ethical and Effective Communication; and (3) an upper-division service-learning course (with themes such as Social Impact of Mass MediaSocial Action Writing; and Oral History/Community Memory) that includes off-campus work in schools and organizations.

After completing the core, students select one of nine concentrations, each including courses that tackle issues of social justice or community engagement (see fig. 1). 

Figure 1.

A recent redesign of the major, beginning in fall 2018, includes a change of the major’s name from Human Communication to Humanities and Communication. 

Four major learning outcomes will now frame the major’s core:

  • Ethical and Effective Communication

  • Social and Cultural Analysis

  • Engaged Creative Practice

  • Humanistic Inquiry

In addition, students will then study one of nine concentrations:

  • Communication Studies

  • Creative Writing and Social Action

  • English Studies

  • English Subject Matter Preparation

  • Ethnic and Gender Studies

  • Historical Studies

  • Journalism and Media Studies

  • Legal Studies

  • Philosophy and Applied Ethics

space500.fw_.pngIn the journalism and media studies concentration, an investigative reporting course morphed into the Monterey Bay Justice Project. In spring 2017, Professor Sam Robinson opened the course to pre-law students, who collaborate with journalism students to “try and raise awareness about questions of justice and injustice in the criminal justice system,” Reichard said. After honing storytelling and research skills, students completed projects by conducting a community forum, creating a podcast about local criminal justice cases, developing a pocket guide on the local criminal justice system, or crafting a public service announcement for a local Spanish radio station.

In senior capstone courses, students draw on their earlier interdisciplinary courses and service learning experiences in an extended semester-long project. These projects can be creative, like a collection of short stories or poetry on a social justice topic, or they can be an internship in the local community or a more traditional research essay.

“These projects are good examples of students taking on big questions like the meaning of justice, which has a deep history and philosophy, and applying them in a project-based way,” Reichard said.

In Technology in the Humanities, a recent capstone course that Reichard taught, students “engage principles of what it means to communicate through technology with various audiences and what that means for the human experience,” Reichard said.

One of his students had recently returned to school after working most of her life as a farmworker in the Salinas Valley. Reflecting on her journey through an adult high school program, community college, and CSUMB, she created a digital story about coming back to school and relearning how to use technology.

“The digital story was designed to communicate with people just like her that, if she could come back to school, they would be able to do it too,” Reichard said. “She created this whole project around the question, ‘How do I help people in my community?’”

Each year, faculty complete a targeted assessment project to improve the curriculum and connect it more deeply to issues of social justice and civic learning. In recent years, these looked at the creative projects, research essays, and internships that students complete in capstone courses. Using rubrics, faculty assess final projects to ensure students are getting a high-quality experience as the major becomes more popular and adds course sections.

As part of a program review mandated by the university, they also survey alumni. These surveys “have been enormously helpful as a way for faculty to identify how effective the curriculum is for students when they leave the major,” Reichard said. “Courses like service learning and capstones, where students have opportunities to work in the community, were considerably important for alumni in their post-graduation life. They took from those experiences lots of things that they are applying every day in the work that they do in a variety of professions.”

These alumni experiences show the various advantages that civic learning provides when structured throughout a major.

“If you're looking for a rationale for why courses that focus on civic learning or civic engagement are meaningful—in addition to the very intrinsic benefits they provide—it's that they’re good for professional development,” Reichard said.

Environmental Science and Geology, Wittenberg University

Unlike the programs at Fort Hays and CSUMB, which focused on civic learning from the start, the Environmental Science and Geology major at Wittenberg University adapted gradually.

“We're in a town, Springfield, Ohio, where one out of five kids is very food insecure,” said Sarah Fortner, assistant professor of geology. “We need to train our Earth science graduates to have civic skills to address the major resilience challenges communities are dealing with. These are issues that affect everybody who's living in our city, but they disproportionately impact people who are living in the lowest income communities.”

The department’s civic focus began several years ago when the department chair at the time, John Ritter, met community stakeholders while researching a local stream. Over time, these connections blossomed into multiple partnerships with various educational, nonprofit, or government organizations.

As civic learning developed, the department has relied heavily on resources from the geosciences community (the National Science Foundation's InTeGrate project, Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences, and Critical Needs for the Twenty-First Century: The Role of Geosciences) and resources that focus on specific learning outcomes (AAC&U’s Inquiry and Analysis and Civic Engagement VALUE rubrics).

The major includes three required courses. In Introductory Environmental Science, a guest speaker from the Clark County Parks District discusses the local ecosystem, and students begin building their research, analysis, and geospatial skills by identifying a local problem, evaluating available resources, and proposing a restoration strategy. Later, in Environmental Science Research Methods, students strengthen these scientific skills as they complete projects in the community. Finally, in Process Geomorphology, students partner with the parks district again to learn geospatial techniques while conducting a survey of a new county park.

In Fortner's research methods class, students work with multiple partners from the health department and community garden organizations to make low-income housing safer by avoiding lead contamination. The partners purchased and gave the program an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) instrument that can detect lead, and students learned how to use the instrument, create maps, and assess the validity and precision of data. Since the city was mostly focusing on contamination caused by lead paint, the students measured soil around town.

“Over time, we looped more partners into the class and now we work with the health department and the Ohio State University extension office, which does agricultural outreach in the community,” Fortner said. They also work with community gardeners to feed the needy while making sure the food is safe to eat.

General education courses that count for the major, including Global Climate Change, also address community needs. In that class, students learn from local environmental resource planners, city leaders, and local businesses about how climate change impacts their work. Students propose solutions or suggest advocacy resources that are locally focused. Other classes have led to campus improvements, including a rain garden.

Working with community partners, even as guest speakers, “broadens the number of mentors students have,” Fortner said. “If it's just me, I'm one mentor. But if I bring six people into my class to share diverse perspectives on this hot issue and/or to teach my students this skill, my students have six new mentors.”

Building partnerships takes time and energy. Fortner recommends scouring local news media, which is how she discovered the lead contamination initiative. Faculty also serve on advisory boards for local organizations and attend local conferences and meetings on environmental issues. Wherever students or faculty interact with partners, it’s important to ask about the areas that need the most attention, Fortner said.

As the department expanded civic learning across more courses, Fortner surveyed colleagues to see what topics they would be interested in pursuing. She invited existing partners to a faculty workshop to discuss their organizations, the data they collect, and the skills and work habits their employees build. Faculty with experience in civic learning answered practical questions about integrating projects and partnerships into existing course curricula. The department has also worked to expand civic learning across other programs through the InTeGrate project. 

“I feel like we're achieving as much as we would with far more funding and grant resources because we collaborate,” Fortner said. “I think collaboration is key to finding new ways to support students, whether it's with others in your department or with community members.”

By scaffolding learning and collaborating with colleagues and outside partners, civic learning at Wittenberg has brought real change to Springfield.

“We actually do make a difference to the community we live in, and it's really satisfying as a citizen of this town to see that,” Fortner said. “And it’s especially satisfying to see students recognize that their work matters.”