Learning Beyond the Classroom

12 May 2016

Between shoes and hypothalamic peptides, Tintin comic art and French economic policy, seven students from the Paris Off-Campus Studies Internship program had perhaps the most intensive learning experience of their college careers. And it wasn’t sitting in a classroom.

Part study abroad, part internship, this pilot program offered students enrolled in the French Studies in Paris course the chance to remain in France past spring term and work as interns in fields connected to their interests. For Danae Bowen ‘17, that was doing medical research at Le Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherché Médicale. For Christopher Griffin ‘17, that was learning the art of sales and shoemaking at a Crockett & Jones Paris boutique.

“It was like a playground for me,” Griffin says. He’d been fascinated with footwear since his first job—shining his father’s shoes.

The playground, though, was at times fierce. There were the demands of the job and the demands of speaking a foreign language all day long.

“It was mentally exhausting,” Jeremy Keane ’17 says. “The vocabulary on the job was a whole new set of words; textbook French is different from everyday French.” Even lunch proved to be tricky—Keane says one day, he almost ate cow’s tongue, not fully knowing food vocabulary.

“But it all really helped me improve,” he says.

All students stressed how much French they learned—most said by the end of their internships, they felt confident and heard their supervisors praise their language abilities. Then there were the career skills learned, and then, the intangibles that come with venturing into the real world. Bowen, for example, says she learned how to treat her classes like a job and organize her learning better. Griffin says he gained more compassion for foreigners living away from home. Keane, working with a French government think tank, gained a unique perspective on the Greek financial crisis and the Syrian immigrant crisis.

“I wasn’t expecting to do research so early,” Bowen says. “The best surprise ever was when they gave me an internship in medicine. I started out observing, and by the end, I was removing tumors from mice and take over the manipulations of some of the master’s students.”

This type of learning—outside of books and boxes—is steadily growing at home, too. While the internship abroad program is fledgling, projects in the community are spreading rapidly.

“I think Carleton sees the value in these kinds of experiences, and I feel there’s enthusiasm for thinking about moving beyond the classroom,” says physics and astronomy chair Melissa Eblen-Zayas. “It’s really about going deeper so you can engage with what makes the liberal arts experience different and more valuable.”

Eblen-Zayas is a strong advocate for community-based learning projects, called Academic Civic Engagement. The combination of students with greatly different backgrounds and strengths and her desire to have students problem solve with real-world constraints led her to consider the potential of ACE projects in her classes.

With the help of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, Eblen-Zayas partnered with the Northfield Environmental Quality Commission to explore the possibility of establishing a curbside organics recycling program in town. Feedback from her students was “overwhelmingly positive,” she says; one of her students even went on beyond the 10-week term to intern with the city of Northfield to finish the work the class had started.

For educational studies professor Anita Chikkatur, community-based learning isn’t just interesting, it’s essential. Her department, she says, has always gone outside of the classroom to learn.

“The college is a nonprofit, and we’re supposed to be doing public good,” she says. “And for me, I think it’s important to share our skills and resources with the surrounding community—and help our students understand the community they’re living in.”

In Chikkatur’s Race, Immigration, and Urban Schools class, her students have paired with the Faribault school district on numerous projects, including designing an eight-week summer camp curriculum on college access. Her students identified issues, such as financial aid and the Common App, and wrote lessons and activities to teach high school students about these often-confusing processes.

“This was one of the times I felt we were being as useful for the community as for my students,” Chikkatur says.

But, despite enthusiasm from students, the college, and the community, learning beyond the classroom remains challenging. Mostly, that’s because projects like these take an enormous amount of time.

“This is a really exciting opportunity for our students, but we need to think about how we can make it a sustainable model for the long term,” Eblen-Zayas says. “None of these projects are ones I can sit down and plan and then wrap up neatly.”

In 2014 Eblen-Zayas received curriculum development funds from Carleton’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to add more civic engagement in science classes, which she says was invaluable in sparking at least one of her ACE projects. Thanks to the grant, she was able to travel around Minnesota and meet with people in the energy sector to find collaborative, community projects for her students. Carleton has also supported ACE efforts, she says, by assigning an educational associate student to the physics department. While Eblen-Zayas was teaching during the academic year, the student could take time to travel, build relationships, and develop these opportunities.

On the other end, time for students to complete these projects is also challenging. Both Eblen-Zayas and Chikkatur have had students continue on as interns with community projects they started in class, but they say there needs to be a rethinking of how credits might work with more involved ACE projects.

Additionally, Chikkatur says a streamlined process needs to be developed so projects could be easily handed off to new students each term or even between disciplines in truly collaborative projects. For example, the organics recycling project started in Eblen-Zayas’s class and grew to involve ENTS students, CAMS students, and statistics students.

All these things would require a reimagining of education, both Eblen-Zayas and Chikkatur admit. But change has happened before, and a change now that allows for more learning outside the classroom is where teaching is headed.

“Learning experiences outside the classroom are a way to go beyond saying we want to produce lifelong learners and engaged citizens to actually giving students some practice working with the issues they’re going to see locally, nationally, and internationally,” Eblen-Zayas says.

Anita Chikkatur, associate professor of educational studies