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Liberal Education in Unexpected Places: Urban Commuter Students Rise to Service-Learning Challenge

At AAC&U’s Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success in June 2014, I met Professor Karen Goodlad.  Goodlad teaches in the Hospitality Management Department at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), a CUNY institution. City Tech is a Hispanic-serving institution in Brooklyn, offering both two- and four-year degrees. It’s an institution that teaches highly mobile commuter students.  Many of its faculty members work on term contracts—they are highly mobile as well. 

Since 2009, City Tech has been helping all faculty to use LEAP frameworks, including the Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs), high-impact practices (HIPs), and VALUE rubrics  for assessment.  Faculty members have been using LEAP to help them infuse a liberal education philosophy into general education (GE) and major programs together, holistically, throughout the curriculum (see the college’s Guidelines for Preparing Learning Outcomes and Assessment Methods).

They’ve succeeded in doing this work in technical and professional programs, specifically preparing students to go into industry.

Both tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty (NTTF) have access to resources supporting their participation. The college has created a method for validating courses as part of the holistic design, and they offer funding for faculty fellows—including instructors on both full- and part-time contracts—to get additional support for the work. The fellows work with HIPs and use place-based learning, spreading these practices throughout the curriculum.  The program has developed an online digital platform for teaching and other collaborations named OpenLab and has involved all educators in assessment. The guiding institutional question is friendly:  “How does this all work best for you and your students?”

The City Tech GE initiative started in 2009, when the college brought in a grant to help faculty infuse the new GE throughout the academic programs. In 2010, they developed a plan for high-impact practices, using George Kuh’s recommendations. They designed their own rubrics for faculty to use for assignments and introduced faculty to work with the assessment team.

At City Tech, the challenge of improving professional support for all faculty members as a way to improve the quality of student learning is thus an active campus issue. How to connect the quality of student learning outcomes to support offered to faculty? How to deepen student learning over time? How to address it?  Goodlad and two colleagues decided to ask the students for help. Through a learning community of three courses, the students took the challenge head on and created #theguide.   

Here is how it happened. Goodlad’s fall 2013 course HMGT 1101, Perspectives in Hospitality Management, joined two other courses in a first-year learning community.  The other two courses were HMGT1102, Food and Beverage Management, taught by John Akana, assistant professor in the Department of Hospitality Management; and ENG1101, English Composition, taught by Laura Westengard, assistant Professor the English Department. The three faculty members chose from the available array of GE outcomes the ones that they wanted to address.  They decided to incorporate two HIPs to improve student engagement. They chose to include academic service learning and to collaborate in making the student work writing intensive. In this way they could address City Tech requirements for general education and use highly engaging pedagogies at the same time.  They later added a third HIP, collaborative projects, though the three faculty members knew they risked expecting too much of both faculty and students.

The faculty decided to create a challenge to the students—using the learning outcomes.  They presented the students with the challenge of creating a service project through the learning community. At the challenge meeting, the faculty also introduced an OpenLab component to students.  They thought the students might figure out how to make an OpenLab site as service to the community. The intended service audience would be new students, new faculty, and new staff at City Tech.

The students took the idea and ran. They went to the Brooklyn waterfront and did a “36-hours” project for the Hospitality 1011 class.  It was intended to serve as a guide to the waterfront.  The learning objective was to write a profile—and both classes did that. The English composition students profiled places on campus., while the food and beverage students also profiled places to eat and drink.  In the English composition class, the students also worked on college skills including time management and introduction to academic culture.

Beyond that, the students created a blog. One hundred percent of their work was designed for their audience of students, faculty, and staff. Soon other students wanted to use the blog and contribute to it.  A couple of seniors in the Urban Tourism course submitted posts. Before long, the college decided to use the site for new faculty orientation. Students even put together a release event for the guide, following specified criteria they learned in their Perspectives in Hospitality Management Course. 

Accomplishing the goal of high engagement was not an easy feat. Each of the courses had Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) that varied.  But the faculty decided to start with what was common among all three courses and work from there.

“In this learning community,” Goodlad says, “we asked our students to lead the way in creating a valuable online tool to serve their fellow students at City Tech.  We asked them to explore various aspects of service—in their potential careers, at City Tech, and in our community.  To make the learning community viable, we used place-based learning, special event planning, and lots of collaboration and creativity. In the end, the students created the public OpenLab site that is now used as a guide for new City Tech students as well as for faculty and staff.  The site focuses on our campus, the Brooklyn Waterfront, and the surrounding communities.”

The faculty and students of the learning community knew that their work would be highly visible to the college community, raising the level of expectation.  The faculty also wanted the experience to be personally valuable. With that in mind, they thought that reflection should be a key component of the learning process. While the students’ work was visible on the OpenLab and throughout the college, the faculty wanted to know how the students developed personally in the process. Their reflections showed that they learned a great deal.

“As I was writing I analyzed my own thoughts—specifically my first experiences walking through the doors of City Tech even before I was officially a freshman.”

“After this project, I have become more interested in the tourism industry and my research skills are improving tremendously in my other classes.”

“In my ‘36 Hours’ I focused on ecotourism, responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of the local people. I was surprised to discover how many organic food facilities are located in Brooklyn.”

“This project helped me to venture out and explore the fast-growing Brooklyn Water front.”

Goodland believes in shattering urban myths: “People think that urban commuter students can’t ‘do Kuh.’  Not true.  The students met with the three faculty—in week two of the course.  The faculty presented the students with the idea of doing something service related for the intended audience.  Students said, ‘We can do that!’ Amazing. These were beginning first-year students.”

Goodlad and colleagues think that they are not alone in their amazing HIP experience with their urban commuter students. AAC&U would love to hear more stories like this one.  If you’d like to hear more about what Goodlad and her colleagues have done with their students, reach out to them:

Karen Goodlad:
Laura Westengard:
John Akana: