The Real Deal

8 August 2013
Photos by Sara Rubinstein ’98

Carleton’s new Center for Community and Civic Engagement inspires students and faculty members to get real.


This story begins with an open plea: Mathematics professor Laura Chihara is on the hunt for “interesting data for students to analyze.” In the past, the data have come from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the former Northwest Airlines, and the Faribault Woolen Mill.

If your company has data, Chihara will send her Carleton statistics students to analyze the information. The company’s location doesn’t matter; the only caveat is that the data address a real question of interest and the answers shouldn’t lie in the back of a book. “Textbook data are clean and already formatted, with everything explained,” says Chihara. “But real data are usually messy.”   

In search of an authentic data experience, she sent a senior comps group to the historic Faribault Woolen Mill this past fall. Located just 12 miles from campus on Highway 3, it is one of few remaining woolen mills in the United States. It began operating during the Civil War, and at its peak, it produced half of the country’s wool blankets. The mill closed in 2009, but it reopened in 2011 under new owners who are determined to improve efficiency—right down to the speed at which the machines spin yarn. High speeds are optimal for yarn strength, but can cause breaks in the strands.   

_98T4620_F.jpgFour of Chihara’s students—Megan Bakken, Cassie Mullen, Yansong Pang, and Wenli Rui (all Class of 2013 math majors)—designed and carried out an experiment at the mill for two weeks. Each day they set a machine to a particular speed and counted the number of breaks in the strands over a five-hour shift. “We wanted to determine which speed would result in the strongest yarn and the fewest number of breaks,” says Rui.

The work on the factory floor was loud, hot, and often tedious. The results—that a setting of 16 to 18 (an internal measure of how fast the strands spin) is optimal for the mill’s machines—were liberating. “It was amazing to see the classroom theories work,” says Bakken. “We can actually be helpful in the real world. This project was particularly special for me, as I grew up near the mill and all my blankets are from there.”

Through this experience the students found that the study of statistics is actually a lot of fun. “We’re not stereotypical math majors in that we have communication skills,” adds Mullen. “We enjoy using other aspects of our education, such as working with people and presenting our findings.”  

Students’ realization of how their acquired skills can be applied to real problems sneaks up on them—and that’s intended. “At a residential liberal arts college, learning is everywhere,” says Carleton President Steven Poskanzer. “It happens on campus and in the wider world. We want to ensure that our students have a broad range of opportunities to apply their studies in practical ways.”

In January 2012 the college launched the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), Carleton’s effort to integrate community engagement with classroom learning and research. It includes Acting in the Community Together (ACT), which supports cocurricular activities; Academic Civic Engagement (ACE), which helps students and professors relate real-world situations to classroom learning; and Public Scholarship, a new program that supports scholarly or creative efforts that contribute to a public good and often involve student/faculty collaboration and partnerships with community organizations. “But it’s not just an integration of personnel units,” says religion professor Michael McNally ’85, CCCE faculty director and Broom Fellow for Public Scholarship. “It’s about exposure to new ways of knowing.”

“Academic knowledge is often limited by its own particular situation and can benefit from civic engagement,” he says. “The oxygen of other ways of knowing, thinking, and communicating make it sharper.”


Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, students are engaged in academic learning. They have access to research, technology, travel, and top-ranked professors who are dedicated to their intellectual growth. Eager to demonstrate their knowledge, students may, at times, underestimate what it takes to comprehend an organization or complex problem. “They can be overly confident,” says McNally. “Our community partners have offered that feedback. It’s important for students to realize that applying academic knowledge to situations on the ground can be humbling.”

He likens this to his own area of expertise: Native American religious studies. “What students will learn from reading books about Native American studies or hearing me lecture on the topic is different from what they will learn from Native people in a community setting. I would never start a lecture with a prayer. It would be inappropriate in an academic setting. But a Native person may begin a cultural discussion with smudging or an offering of tobacco and an appeal that the information be used to better the world. Even a small gesture such as this offers our students insight into a very different way of viewing the process of learning.”  

_B9A3317_F.jpgThe concept of “other ways of knowing” becomes even clearer when students are mucking out stalls and cultivating soil through Carleton’s Farm Mentorship Program, led by Kelly Scheuerman, assistant director of ACT. Through the program, students can volunteer on local farms in exchange for a working knowledge of farm life. “It’s a reciprocal relationship,” says Scheuerman. “The farmers teach students the business of farming, and the students do the labor.”

The work is decidedly different from classroom learning, but it connects directly. Some students want to become organic farmers, while others have an interest in food policy and economics—careers that benefit from hands-on knowledge about how a farm works and the issues that affect farmers. Last year Scheuerman’s student worker, Lindsay Guthrie ’13 (Woodside, Calif.), developed a “food pathway,” a sort of online roadmap that highlights the various ways students can become educated on food issues at Carleton. Opportunities include classes and student organizations, as well as off-campus internships and volunteering, such as with the Northfield food shelf, co-op, or area farmers.

“Food issues are interdisciplinary,” says Guthrie. “There are many aspects from cooking and nutrition to politics and social justice. It can be overwhelming. The food pathway offers students advice on how to become involved with food issues. It also helps student leaders identify gaps in food engagement at Carleton and determine how to fill them with new initiatives.”

“The students form a network,” adds Scheuerman. “The older students guide the younger ones along the path, and they all share contacts, ideas, and opportunities.”

Carleton students have volunteered at Laura Baker Services Association, a Northfield home for people with developmental disabilities, for decades. Approximately 30 Carleton students volunteer there each academic year through ACT’s College Buddies program, which pairs a student with a resident to befriend and visit once a week. Residents give students another perspective.

“My buddy has lived at Laura Baker for nearly 70 years,” says Polly Durant ’14, program co-director. “He may not have a high IQ, and he’s often restricted to his wheelchair because of his cerebral palsy, but he more than anyone else has taught me the importance of community. People around town know him from church and from Goodbye Blue Monday coffee shop. He remembers everything about people’s lives and families and makes a point to ask: ‘How’s that wife doing?’ or ‘How’s your little boy?’ I’m humbled when I realize I’m just a small piece of what makes his social life so vibrant.”

Durant, a psychology major with an educational studies concentration, aspires to become an occupational therapist, working with children with disabilities. “Although working with my buddy gives me great experience for a future career in occupational therapy, my career goals come second to the fact that he has become an important part of my life,” she says. “I’ve developed a close relationship with the Laura Baker staff, especially my buddy’s house director and guardian. As part of his team, I’ve learned that open communication between us provides him with the best possible, consistent care.”

“It can be difficult for volunteers to commit sometimes because of their other obligations,” says Elle Whitney, volunteer coordinator at Laura Baker. “The ACT program is pivotal in terms of ensuring that students are reliable. It offers students support and opportunities for reflection, which makes the experience more powerful. They begin to see how their service connects to their life and learning, and they become more dedicated. Meanwhile, we depend on the students’ help—we wouldn’t be as successful without them.”

“Programs like College Buddies help students develop as leaders,” adds Laura Riehle-Merrill, director of ACT. “Community engagement allows students to gain self- awareness and develop their strengths while creating positive social change. Last year, 100 percent of our student coordinators reported that their role in ACT made them more likely to be active in their community for the rest of their lives. I feel a great deal of pride in knowing that I am helping our students graduate with the skills to be healthy, engaged citizens.”


Northfield was already investigating alternative energy uses when Melissa Eblen-Zayas, associate professor of physics and chair of the physics and astronomy department, approached members of the Northfield City Council and the Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) last fall about working with students in her environmental studies class, Materials Science, Energy, and the Environment. The course studies the life cycle of materials: how much energy goes into making them, what happens after their use phase, and how they can be recycled into alternative energy sources or energy-efficient materials. “I can lecture very knowledgeably about the technology and science behind renewable energy,” says Eblen-Zayas. “But the challenge is not simply ‘can we get the science to happen,’ but ‘can we take these ideas and implement them in the real world?’”  

Eblen-Zayas asked local leaders, such as George Kinney, chair of the Northfield EQC, to visit the class and discuss with students the city’s renewable energy efforts. As part of their final project, some students then worked on the city’s pilot curbside-composting program, which will enable residents to compost materials unfit for a backyard bin, such as certain plastics and pizza boxes. Those students attended EQC meetings, conducted research, and created a PowerPoint presentation to educate local residents about the program. Their first presentation at the Northfield Public Library was so well attended that the EQC has asked them to continue presenting their work to local groups.   

Kinney, who has served on a number of city advisory boards, often works with Carleton and St. Olaf students on civic engagement projects. “The EQC is all volunteers, so we’re happy to have the extra help,” he says. “And students are exposed to the practical applications of their studies. They see that solutions aren’t simple. They can take a lot of time—especially in city government.”

“I was nervous about incorporating a civic engagement component into a class,” says Eblen-Zayas. “There are a lot of variables. You don’t know how things are going to turn out and if it will be a useful experience for the students. Now I’m hooked on the concept.”

Biology department chair Debby Walser-Kuntz, who has incorporated community projects into her coursework since 2008, will assume McNally’s role as CCCE faculty director and Broom Fellow for Public Scholarship next academic year. She frequently partners with the HealthFinders Collaborative, which provides health care to underserved communities in Rice County. Recently a group of students in her Immunology class wrote grant proposals for the organization, while another group designed a plan for a vaccine clinic. “The projects fulfill a real need for HealthFinders,” says Walser-Kuntz. “And they inspire students to think about how to communicate with the public on issues surrounding health and science, which I feel is our responsibility as scientists.”

Adding a civic engagement component to a course is not easy, however. There’s the matter of identifying community partners, fitting a project into a 10-week course, and grading a nonstandard assignment. Both Eblen-Zayas and Walser-Kuntz laud the work of ACE director Adrienne Falcon, who forges community partnerships and works with faculty members to design course projects. “I’m interested in exploring any and all possibilities that can benefit Carleton students, faculty, and community partners,” says Falcon. “It’s incredible when you see so many people learning from each other and contributing to make the world a better place. How could I not want to be a part of that?”

She’s also fascinated by how it raises the stakes for students. “What happens to the work when the professor is no longer the only audience?” she says. “How does the work change when it matters to a community?”

Faculty members find that students become more engaged in the coursework when they work outside of the classroom and that, in turn, energizes the professors. Students employ cross-disciplinary skills and make important connections through their work. Many students discover a new passion and, sometimes, a direction for their future studies or career.

“Part of Carleton’s mission is to prepare our students to be leaders in a variety of fields,” says Falcon. “What do we mean by that and what steps do we take along the way? For me, it’s to create a broad range of experiences that help students answer the questions: What moves me and where should I go with these interests and passions?”

The answers to those questions will change over the course of a student’s lifetime. No one knows this better than Carleton faculty members. Civic engagement and public scholarship at the faculty level can offer professors renewed purpose. “We, too, begin to rethink our work midcareer,” says CCCE faculty director McNally. “Engaged scholarship, community-based research, student-faculty collaborations, and technology offer new ways to wed our passion for research with our dedication to teaching. And all of this adds to the student experience.”

Students who work with Julie Neiworth, professor of psychology and director of the neuroscience concentration, have been exposed recently to the darker side of academics. Last summer Neiworth won a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to retest the comparative cognition studies of well-known psychologist Marc Hauser, who resigned from Harvard in 2011 under accusations of fabricated data. “There’s a new initiative at NIH to encourage replications because there have been a fair amount of fraud cases, which have begun to dismantle the public’s trust in scientific research,” says Neiworth. “It’s a very serious thing.”

Because she has one of the country’s only labs with tamarins, the monkey species used in the original study, Neiworth was an obviously good fit for replicating Hauser’s research. But she also felt compelled to do the work because she has taught Hauser’s research to her students for years. “It’s important for students to see how someone can be led to falsify research,” she says. “Scientists are people, too. You don’t get grant money for negative results, and you don’t get famous. Failed studies aren’t published.”

This exposure to the realities of academic life is a large part of why she teaches her scholarly work in the classroom and invites interested students to take part in her research. “I fully integrate my research into my teaching,” she says. “It offers students professional research opportunities, encourages their capabilities, and inspires them to take on these big questions.”

At its foundation, the CCCE’s goal is to get real. These experiences are not easy. They can be frustrating and humbling for students and professors, but they are also invigorating and transformative. Woven into the fabric of Carleton, they enrich life on campus and in the world beyond.


Hearing Diverse Voices

Kassie Maxeiner ’14 (Bronxville, N.Y.), far left, Casey Silver ’13 (Chappaqua, N.Y.), center, and Leah Eby ’13 (St. Louis), fourth from left, worked with Faribault High School students recently on issues surrounding religious and cultural difference that have created tensions within the school community.

During spring term, Carleton students conducted interviews with the high school students about what matters to them, including their families, beliefs, friendships, sense of Faribault, and hopes for the future. Using quotes from those conversations, the Carleton students mounted an exhibit, Hearing the Voices: Celebrating Diversity at Faribault High School, which asks viewers to appreciate the range of diversity among students and focuses on collaboration rather than conflict.

“We found that almost everyone—be they Somali Muslim, Evangelical Christian, or Filipino Catholic—feels under siege and misunderstood,” says Carleton religion professor Shana Sippy. “Often situations can be diffused just by listening to each other.” Sippy initiated the project after meeting with local community leaders and hearing about the need to address diversity at the high school.

The Faribault effort is part of a larger initiative that Sippy began three years ago with Carleton religion department chair Michael McNally to develop a public scholarship project that involves ongoing faculty and student research about religious diversity in Minnesota. As part of the initiative, Carleton has developed web-based resources—including photos of religious sites, oral histories, photography, video and audio recordings, and practical resources—and has partnered with local community leaders, educators, and health and law enforcement professionals. 

“The demographic makeup of our state has changed dramatically over the past 20 years in both urban and rural areas,” says Sippy. “Carleton students find fulfillment in helping to promote greater understanding of religious diversity and contributing to a project that has value beyond the classroom.”

Web Extra: Learn more about the Hearing the Voices project.

Phoebe Larson is a writer and editor based in St. Paul.

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