Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Utah Valley University

Engaged Learning Energizes Utah Valley University and Community


Engaged Learning Energizes Utah Valley University and Community

When Haagen Klaus, an assistant professor of anthropology, arrived at Utah Valley University in 2008, he was prepared for change. Moving from a large research institution in the Midwest to the teaching-focused UVU in Orem, Utah, Klaus expected that he wouldn't be able to engage his students in hands-on learning and research as much as he'd like. But he was pleasantly surprised to find that UVU was in the midst of a metamorphosis focused on engaged learning—one that would allow him and his students to undertake one of the most significant research projects of his career.

An Institutional Focus

Utah Valley University, a public institution of about 26,000 undergraduates, was founded as a vocational school in 1941, opened to train skilled workers who could produce weapons and ammunition for the war effort. After World War II ended, the institution expanded its offerings to include many more career training programs, and, in the 1960s, associates' degrees. In the mid-1990s, the school became a state college offering four-year degrees, and in 2008, it became a university when the first master's degrees were approved. These tremendous institutional changes over a relatively short time period highlight how UVU has always been both a practical and adaptable institution, says Jack Christianson, special assistant to the president at UVU. In 2007, about a year before university status became a reality, former UVU president William Sederburg (now Utah's commissioner of higher education) started an initiative called Communities of Engaged Learners to make engaged learning an institutionalized focus for UVU. Building on the school's history of training students to make an immediate impact on the larger world, Sederburg designated $400,000 to be awarded in $2,500 grants to faculty members who created engaged learning projects involving students and community partners. Christianson became executive director of UVU's Center for Engaged Learning (CEL), the home for the new initiative. "We're focusing on what we call the "three Ps" at UVU," Christianson explains. "We want to produce people of integrity, who are professionally competent, and are stewards of place—connected to their communities. We've always wanted to graduate students who have a resume as well as a diploma."

The CEL grants are available through an application process that can be initiated by a faculty member, a student or group of students, or a community organization. Each prospective grantee must find a faculty member to work with, though the faculty role can be primarily that of adviser. Applicants then attend workshops for prospective grantees and write up a project proposal. Proposals must demonstrate what academic outcomes the project aspires to achieve for its students, how it fits with the institution's mission and core values, and what activities will be involved. Awards are decided by a committee of faculty and academic affairs staff members. Currently, the acceptance rate for proposals is about 65 percent, Christianson says, and he often discusses rejected proposals with applicants to determine how to strengthen the projects for reapplication. After the projects are complete, faculty members must write up an assessment report describing the work done and indicating the degree to which the learning outcomes were met. Since its initial round of grants was awarded in September 2007, the CEL has received additional funding to continue awarding grants. For many participants, the CEL initial grant functions as "seed money," Christianson explains, allowing them to later apply for larger grants from outside entities based on the outcomes of their initial projects.

Engaged Learning across the Curriculum

Since practical, hands-on learning has been a part of UVU since the institution's origin, many faculty members were already incorporating engaged learning into their courses. The CEL provided welcome funding to many of them, including Todd Low, an associate professor who teaches automotive mechanics in one of UVU's two-year degree programs. Low received a CEL grant to fund a project called World of Speed in which about twenty of his students built a high-performance car and tested it in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, where it set a land-speed record. High school students from Orem and Provo were invited to watch the races, learn about how the car was built, and hear a presentation about interpretation of test data.

The CEL also helped Klaus, the anthropology professor, to bring five students to the Lambayeque Valley region Peru in summer 2009 to excavate a site he'd worked on during an earlier research excursion. Klaus and the students discovered the remains of more than thirty young adults—mostly girls—whose bodies showed evidence of ritual sacrifice. The unusual discovery was the first of its kind in Peruvian archeology. The students also helped excavate a church from Peru's colonial era, working alongside local people. "Local community was a fundamental aspect of this project," Klaus says. "The students found themselves in complete linguistic and cultural immersion—we lived with the local people, who are Muchik Indians, ate with them, spent our free time with them, and they sometimes worked with us on site." The fieldwork experience allowed Klaus to teach in the manner he loves—through research—and provided the students an unparalleled opportunity to get significant anthropological field experience, as well as develop competence in writing up data, producing research reports, and talking to lay audiences about their findings. "I expected the students to function as junior colleagues during the trip," Klaus says. "It took them about a week to feel comfortable, and by then I could see that they'd collect data competently. They exceeded my expectations, and they really owned the project—they became stakeholders." The students' work studying the sacrifice victims was written up by National Geographic, and most of the students are applying for graduate school. Klaus is developing a nine-credit course in archeological fieldwork that will be run in conjunction with a study abroad program, allowing greater numbers of students to gain fieldwork experience in the future.

Janice Gygi, a marketing professor who also served as interim dean of the School of the Arts in 2008, received a grant from the CEL to produce, with students, a concert titled, "Tutus, Triptychs, Tympani, and Two-Minute Soliloquies: Presenting the School of the Arts." The concert, held in November 2008, included performances from students and faculty from each of the School of the Arts' four departments, as well as community members. The concert highlighted the School of the Arts, which was created in 2008 when UVU gained university status. In addition to the concert, the students created blogs and Web pages showing the processes by which they created their artistic works. "Students in the visual and performing arts gain professional competence through participating in their disciplines," Gygi says. "The Center for Engaged Learning has provided us with a way to fund some things, like these performances, that we were really excited about doing." The concert was so popular within UVU and the Orem community that a second concert is in the works for February 2010. Gygi is also assisting UVU faculty member Susan Madsen in a study investigating why women in Utah make up less than half of the student body in the state's higher education institutions—an anomaly from the rest of the United States. The research, which involves both graduate and undergraduate students, received both a CEL grant as well as a larger Perkins grant.

Community and University Support

Gygi, who is also a member of UVU's general education committee, emphasizes that high-quality engagement is more important than simply greater numbers of engaged learning projects. "It's easy to go overboard—we want to make sure the engaged learning activities are good quality," she says. The faculty members who make up the majority of the grant selection committee have high standards to ensure that funded projects are rigorous.

Building a positive relationship between the local community and the university is also an important goal of engaged learning, Christianson says. "We've been asking leaders in the community how the university can work with them to solve problems. We don't want to go in and say, 'We're going to fix all your problems.'" Sometimes, community members view the university as "a white citadel closed off to the community," says Vince Fordiani, assistant director of the CEL. "Some community members felt that they were too different from the university people and that they couldn't be involved. These projects are helping remedy that." Students from the UVU construction management program, for example, recently worked with Habitat for Humanity to plan and construct one home, and another is in the works.

UVU faculty members are increasingly getting on board with the CEL's mission as well. "We let faculty members voice their opinions about the CEL from the beginning, critical or otherwise," Christianson says. "We're a teaching institution and they're all teaching a lot of hours each week, and some people wondered if this was just another administrative program that would require more work. But as faculty members got funding to do projects they'd always wanted to do with their students, the CEL really started to catch on. Now faculty members are some of our biggest advocates."

Klaus counts himself among those advocates. "I think that engaged learning allows students to thrive and to do things at a level they hadn't imagined they could," he says. "There's an energy on this campus that I really hadn't experienced before."


Utah Valley University