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Transformational learning through the Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative

Community-based learning is transformational because students learn
key content and skills while changing the world. #sustainability

Sharing experiences move us from just sustainability? to JUST! sustainability. #sustainability4all

What inspires you to engage in partnerships through community-based learning and applied research? In 140-character Tweets, faculty at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions’ Professional Development Workshop on June 20 kicked off a fantastic event by getting a little bit social (media) with their introductions.

After tweeting, PSU architecture faculty B.D. Wortham-Galvin and urban studies & planning faculty Thad Miller shared with colleagues their experiences in partnering on course projects around the Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI), a new model of university-community engagement supported by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. Faculty heard from SNI partners about some of their ideas for developing course projects to help address community-identified needs, like preventing displacement, promoting green infrastructure, and cultivating community engagement. Faculty were also able to network with partners and colleagues from the University, helping one another understand the questions, challenges, and best practices around engaging in community partnerships—all through creative workshop sessions, such as a “gallery showing” on Post It notes and a “syllabi charrette.”

In the syllabi charrette, faculty members had time to reflect on courses for which they were interested in developing projects, and were then able to discuss these ideas with community partners. Participants came away from these discussions with exciting plans for course projects like a Freshman Inquiry class’s field guide to pollinator habitat, Urban Honors students’ research on bioswales technology, and upper-level anthropology courses’ analyses of perceptions regarding nature in the Foster Green area neighborhoods.

At the end of the workshop, faculty teaching a total of 18 courses committed to work with ISS staff and SNI partners throughout next academic year to develop community-based learning projects. 

Longtime faculty member Kevin Kecskes, associate professor of public administration, commented, “From what I’ve heard today, the SNI reflects a major step in the sophistication of how we are thinking about our partnerships as a university.” 

Interest in this type of concentrated collaboration was clear. Nearly all participating faculty affirming that they were “very interested” in participating in this work—with support from ISS staff, of course.

ISS will be hosting additional events to discuss the potential for collaborating with SNI partners on class projects, as well as to deepen the conversation about how to best prepare students to engage in course projects with diverse communities. In the meantime, we will move forward in trying to better understand PSU’s current and past impact with some of these community partners, all while getting ready to plan course projects for the 2014–2015 academic year.

Jacob Sherman is sustainability curriculum coordinator for the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and manages the Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative. 

Anna Dearman, a graduate research assistant at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions focused on the Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative, also contributed to this post.