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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Courses partner with local organizations

For the past seven years, environmental studies professor Terry Osborne has taught many of his classes with an emphasis on what he calls “community-based learning” — getting his students out of the classroom and working on projects for nonprofit organizations in the Upper Valley community to apply their knowledge in practice.

“What I have learned from the past is that it absolutely amplifies and intensifies learning of the students,” Osborne said.

When the Social Impact Practicum initiative kicked off in the winter of 2017, Osborne’s classes fit right in with the goals of the program.

Organized by the Dartmouth Center for Social Impact, formerly known as the Center for Service, the SIP initiative serves as a direct response to College President Phil Hanlon’s call for greater experiential learning, said the center’s associate director of academic and service engagement Ashley Doolittle.

“Our center does community-driven experiential learning, which means that all of the programs in our portfolio of work come from explicit needs from community partners and organizations locally and around the country,” Doolittle said.

To bring this concept into classrooms, professors can choose to incorporate a social impact practicum into their courses, in which students work on projects for community organizations in the Upper Valley, according to Doolittle. This term, 11 courses have SIPs, with subjects ranging from engineering to film studies to speech.

“Faculty have an ability to seamlessly integrate [SIPs] into their existing courses so that students can apply the skills and content of what they are learning in that course for the need of a community partner,” Doolittle said.

Though Osborne has been teaching his environmental studies courses with an experiential component long before they were called SIPs, he said that the center’s management of the program has eased the logistical commitment for professors and has helped prevent community partners from being overwhelmed by an unorganized volume of Dartmouth projects.

In Osborne’s first-year seminar class, Environmental Studies 7.04, “COVER Stories,” students partner with COVER Home Repair, a volunteer home repair organization based in White River Junction, to learn about the intersection between social service and environmentalism. After meeting with staff and going to work sites, students complete video projects for COVER that are then published on the organization’s web page.

Likewise, in Osborne’s ecopsychology class, Environmental Studies 7.03, “Ecopsychology,” also a first-year seminar, students work with a variety of ecologically-focused community partners and develop video projects.

“That human connection with those people out in the community is an incredibly powerful experience,” Osborne said.

Ethan Smith ’20 took Osborne’s ecopsychology class last winter and worked on a promotional film for the Upper Valley Land Trust, a Hanover-based land conservation organization.

“The social impact part of the course ­— working with the Land Trust — kind of introduced a real-world learning to the course that I don’t think would have been present in a regular lecture course,” Smith said.

Smith said he was drawn to the fact that the class included both a volunteer and an environmental component, and he enjoyed how the class allowed students to apply their knowledge in practice. He has since recommended the class to several other students.

“I think not only working in a class that has a social impact but just working in a class that has a connection to the outside world is super interesting to me,” Smith said.

Osborne said that from the perspective of the community partners, his students’ projects have been helpful not only for the work done, but also from the added value of having other people promote their organizations, which he said helps the community partners feel validated.

“The organizations have said how valuable it is to see themselves from a different perspective, because they rarely get that opportunity,” Osborne said.

According to Doolittle, over 600 students have now participated in 36 distinct SIP courses across 18 disciplines, with 35 matched community partners and 65 completed projects.

“All of the faculty in year one have chosen to do it again in year two, and many have added a second course, which I think is indicative of their feeling like it is valuable to the students involved and to their work as well,” Doolittle said.

Sociology professor Kimberly Rogers is teaching two courses this term, Sociology 11, “Research Methods” and Sociology 65, “Social Psychology of Inequality,” both of which include SIPs.

“I find that it’s a lot more engaging and helps students hit the ground running a lot more quickly,” Rogers said.

She said that students in her classes take research questions about inequality from Upper Valley community partners and work in groups to develop research designs and collect data. This, she added, fulfills a real need for community organizations that may not have the skills necessary to complete the research they need to answer their questions.

This work not only helps her students better understand sociological research, but also helps them see how it can be actively applied outside of the classroom, Rogers said.

“The students tell me that it was a really refreshing change of pace for them to be doing something that had broader impacts for the local community,” she said.

To Doolittle, these mutual benefits to students and the broader community fulfill the ultimate goals of the SIP program.

“Doing community-driven experiential learning is of great value to the surrounding Upper Valley, to the students, often to the faculty as well — that’s what we strive for,” she said.