While the McKeen Center for the Common Good is most known for its weekly volunteer programs, interactions with the community also happen within a formal academic framework.
Bowdoin’s Community-Based Learning program started in 2001 when students and professors expressed interest in connecting classrooms to communities.
“There was this movement in the 1990s of increasing interest in colleges and universities in service learning, and the idea that students could connect what they were learning in the classroom to community needs,” said Janice Jaffe, associate director of courses and research at the McKeen Center.
When the program began, classes focused on problem-based learning that helped communities address and resolve specific issues. The environmental studies and sociology departments were pioneers in establishing connections with the community. An array of departments such as economics, theater, computer science, french and biology have since added community-based courses.
“It runs the gambit from anthropology to visual arts,” Jaffe said.
One notable course is Poverty and Redistribution, taught by Economics Professor John Fitzgerald. In this course, economics students partner with Cash Coalition, an organization which provides tax preparation services for people who qualify for the earned income credit.
“These students help everyone make sure they have their records and walk people through the process,” said Fitzgerald. “Occasionally, students have become tax-preparers.”
As this particular economics class is statistic-based, interacting with and assisting people filing taxes enriches the class’s dimensions and scope.
“The students like the opportunity of seeing how things actually happen while the Cash Coalition has the extra help of these miniature research projects which the students do,” Fitzgerald said.
Jae Bradley ’13 is a course liaison for this class, coordinating the volunteer schedule with the Cash Coalition. He said he recognizes that the class exposes students to a unique perspective.
“I think they’re realizing how tough it is to coordinate with people at the local municipality level,” said Bradley. “There are a lot of hurdles they have to jump across to get in touch with the right people.”
Although the class is only a semester, the Community-Based Learning Program has inspired students to maintain exterior relationships.
“We are always seeking long-term, really deep, sustainable ties with the organizations we work with,” said Jaffe. “I think that’s what it’s all about. Also, if it can be multidisciplinary that is all the better.”
While the relationship with the Cash Coalition is well-established, some of the programs are newer. Senior Lectures Anna Rein’s Intermediate Italian II class, for example, reached out to the Williams-Cone School in Topsham this semester.
Rein’s students teach children in the elementary school’s afterschool enrichment program to teach children Italian. This connection introduces elementary school children to Italian vocabulary and culture, while also giving Bowdoin students the opportunity to teach and review Italian words which they would not likely study otherwise.
“The Bowdoin students that came in were always very enthusiastic and taught the kids a language in a way that was both educational and entertaining,” said Heather Hollenbach, coordinator of the afterschool enrichment program.
Students in Assistant Professor Doris Santoro’s Educating All Students course have also volunteered in schools, but in a different capacity. In an effort to better tailor the program to help education minors and prospective Bowdoin Teacher Scholars— who will likely teach in secondary schools—the class works in Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland, Brunswick Junior High School, and Bath Middle School. These three schools serve different demographics diversifying the types of classrooms to which Bowdoin students are exposed.
Each Bowdoin student in this course teams up with a middle school student for three hours a week and provides the student with real-time academic support, encourages class participation and assists with independent work.
“The presence of Bowdoin students tends to enhance the middle school students attendance and performance,” Santoro said.
However, the middle school students are not the only ones learning from this experience. Santoro noted that this partnership has been an invaluable academic experience for Bowdoin students.
Instead of discussing educational theory and considering teaching from the educators perspective, this program reminds Bowdoin students of what is like to be a middle school student.
“They move away from having an abstract idea of what an adolescent learner is,” Santoro said. “This course requires that they take on the perspective of the student the entire time.”
Rachel Pollinger ’15, a mathematics and education major, is matched with a learning partner at Bath Middle School.
“I think the community-based aspect lets your see what you’ve been reading about in practice,” Pollinger said. “It’s very much motivated me to pursue education. If I can make my learning partner smile, it makes my day.”
Jaffe believes that the future of the entire program is contingent upon Bowdoin student interest.
“I think it also needs to be constantly evaluated and constantly changing,” she said, “but I really do see sustained interest and constant evolution.”
Tasha Sandoval ’13, McKeen fellow of community-based courses and research, organized a forum in February in which students conducting community-related honors projects or independent studies met to discuss their work.
“We want to emphasize that service in other respects could influence academic pursuits, “ said Sandoval. “Something we strive to do in the program is to promote the marriage of service and civic engagement with academics.”
Next Thursday, there will be a symposium with refreshments in Morrell Lounge in Smith Union from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Students who completed community-based coursework will share stories about their experiences.