University gains recognition for its public service innovations
By Deb Aronson
A high school boy teaching computer skills in Africa. An inner city administrator fulfilling her vision of a playground. A rural chemistry teacher linking to a professional community.
What is the connection of these people – and hundreds of others – to the University of Illinois?
Retooling its Land-Grant Mission
They are all part of what the University offers as public service – one of the four legs in its mission, which also includes teaching, research and economic development. Service is something that Illinois has been engaged in almost since its inception as a land-grant university in 1867.
For scores of years, that mainly took the form of sending University people out into the community to share skills and information and then return to their colleges and Extension offices. But in the 21st century, the University has taken the public service aspect of its land-grant purpose – to offer higher education to all – and turned it on its head.
Instead of being a top-down dispenser of information to the community, the University has come to realize that, in fact, things turn out much better for all involved when top-down meets bottom-up. That is, when members of the UI community work in concert with members of other communities, such involvement pays dividends both in the world and back on campus.
Those partnerships range from urban nutrition and rural medicine to the arts, architecture and science. They also involve a wide range of participants and partners, including school-age children, women with small children, college students, K-12 teachers and low-income communities. While some programs have been around for decades, like the East St. Louis Action Research Project, others are only a few years old, like the Institute for Chemistry Literacy Through Computational Sciences, or brand-new, like the Education Justice Project, which has just begun offering college classes to inmates at the Danville Correctional Center.
“When our faculty, staff or students become involved in a public engagement project,” says Chancellor Richard Herman, “they are entering into a contract in which both they and those they engage with have much to gain through the sharing of and creating new knowledge.”
“We have gradually developed a wider recognition of the legitimacy of local or indigenous knowledge,” says Ann Bishop, an associate professor at the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science. “It is part of this movement – and it really is a movement – away from the idea that the only people with viable knowledge come from the University.”
And so it is that Joseph Hines, the high school student mentioned above, signed up for the University’s Teen Tech team and ended up traveling to the African island nation of São Tomé/Principe. Once there, he shared his computer knowledge with local high school students and helped install a computer lab. The experience, he says, “sparked my drive and passion again to accomplish lots of things.” Today he’s studying chemistry in college.
Hines’ story is just one of many that illustrate how, like a pebble dropped into a pond, the benefits of University of Illinois public engagement projects ripple out to touch an astonishing array of individuals and communities.
It’s an approach that works.
Recently, that panoply of programs caught the attention of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which awarded Illinois a Community Engagement Classification for both curricular engagement, and outreach and partnerships. The University was one of 112 U.S. colleges and universities that received the certification in late 2008 from the foundation, a highly respected and independent policy and research center founded in 1905 to “do and perform all things necessary to encourage, uphold and dignify the profession of the teacher.”
“We are developing a richer, more sophisticated notion of what it means to be civically engaged, that service is not its own separate thing,” says Bishop, who headed the civic commitment task force that helped write the Carnegie application.
“Such efforts across our campus combine to define who we are as a land-grant university in 2009,” says Steve Sonka, interim vice chancellor of the UI Office of Public Engagement. “The efforts recognized within the Carnegie Report, plus many, many more at our University, determine how the University of Illinois is viewed and is valued by our peers and by the public.”
That perception is important. “When the Carnegie Foundation speaks,” says Kris Campbell, an assistant vice chancellor for public engagement who spearheaded the application submission, “people listen.”
Pick a Partnership
The seemingly countless number and range of community partnerships in which the University is involved are changing and improving the lives of community members, faculty and students in myriad ways.
Some partnerships have a relatively tight focus, like Art-Speak, a program in which Rantoul Township High School students come to the Krannert Art Museum to explore and learn about its resources, create art and then pass that knowledge on to younger children.
“It is part of this movement – and it really is a movement – away from the idea that the only people with viable knowledge come from the University.”
“It is a change that the students go through that is the most important aspect of the program,” says Rantoul art teacher Laura Billimack. “The students arrive shy and uncertain, but they leave with a confidence in creative writing and creative thinking.
“They realize that what they are thinking about has validity and worth.”
Other engagement projects target a more diffuse audience, like the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, which reaches out to all of Illinois in a variety of ways – through the schools, through special events and through the RiverWatch program. There, “citizen scientists” learn to collect data from their local creeks and streams and report the information as part of a nationwide effort to study and monitor water quality and the environment. The center, which offers students water-related internships in government, education or research settings, is a partnership with the University of Illinois, the Nature Conservancy, Lewis and Clark Community College in Alton, the Natural History Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey.
‘These projects make people more optimistic’
As the perception of service has evolved, so has the concept of how outreach is conducted. Engagement is now far more collaborative, with the recognition that knowledge in these kinds of interactions flows, in fact, in both directions.
The East St. Louis Action Research Project (ESLARP) has been a leader in this more collaborative approach, having been established 22 years ago when faculty in the UI School of Fine and Applied Arts and community leaders in East St. Louis began working together. The goal from the beginning was to encourage
a mutually beneficial partnership between students and community groups.
Irma Golliday, director of the East St. Louis Park District, had a vision of revitalizing communities through improved city parks. One of many projects that grew from that vision was led by Bruce Wicks, MS ’81 AHS, a UI associate professor of recreation and sports tourism. He and his students helped the neighborhood secure a $50,000 grant from the Snapple drink company by way of KaBOOM, a nonprofit organization, for playground equipment at Virginia Park. The students also collaborated with neighborhood people to plan the playground that now seemed possible.
This past spring, more than 300 friends of the park came from far and wide to help build the equipment, says Errol Allen, president of the Friends of Virginia Park Association. They poured in from the neighborhood, from Snapple and from the University.
“I’ve been living in the area for 55 years, and I have never seen that many people in the park, except back in the 1960s when we had an intraschool picnic,” he says. Allen sees the park project as a small but important part of the very big puzzle of how to restore East St. Louis.
“Virginia Park was the first park to get new equipment, and it was a success,” he says. “We’ll do the same [sort of] thing in Lincoln Park. ... A lot of the project also comes afterwards, with things like drum circles and ice cream socials to bring the community together. These projects make people more optimistic.
“It’s not about playground equipment but about bringing people together.”
Trust + Respect = Art + Science
Building the kind of trust and mutual respect among students, faculty and community members that can result in success is somewhat of an art. But hard-core science takes part as well, as the research involved in many engagement projects informs UI professors and measures results so that they may be reproduced elsewhere.
The Institute for Chemistry Literacy Through Computational Sciences (ICLCS), for example, was created three years ago with a grant from the Math-Science Partnership of the National Science Foundation. The collaboration between the UI Department of Chemistry, the UI School of Medicine and NCSA teaches high school chemistry teachers how to use computation and visualization tools to build a molecule, rotate it, view it in 3-D and even see how it behaves when joined with other molecules – a far cry from the balls and sticks models of the traditional chemistry classroom.
The program targets rural high schools that often have only one chemistry teacher or just one science teacher on staff. Teachers come to campus for two weeks every summer to train intensely and meet colleagues, who then correspond throughout the year using Moodle, a social networking tool.
Thanks to Moodle, participants go from being the sole science teacher in their school to, in the words of Carterville chemistry teacher Mary Jo Osborne, “a member of a department with 50 chemistry teachers.”
Project coordinator Dave Mattson ’97 LAS believes that the program “could go a long way in improving understanding and confidence in chemistry.” And that does appear to be the case.
After Osborne learned how to make a small molecule on the computer at NCSA, her students did likewise back in the classroom.
“The next day a student came and said, ‘I went home and made ATP,’ which is a big molecule,” says Osborne, sounding thrilled. “My students could learn something in class, then sign on to the NCSA computers and build a much bigger molecule because NCSA gives them access. I think that’s huge.”
Rodger Baldwin, who teaches at Clinton High School, credits the program for broadening his insulated environment and improving his professional growth – he’s the next president of the Illinois Association of Chemistry Teachers.
The trickle-down effect continued as students benefited from Baldwin’s growing confidence. Not only are they doing better in class, they also attended the University’s annual Engineering Open House for the first time. “Because I knew people, I felt comfortable taking my class to campus,” says Baldwin.
Tests administered to both students and teachers show improved test scores. Like ripples in a pond, the ICLCS experience will expand outward from teachers to students and even beyond. Estimates are that 15,000 students will benefit from the first five years of the program, with plans to expand to other schools as well.
From the Mississippi to the Atlantic
Ripples happen in other ways, too, as one outreach program might spawn another or join forces with an existing one.
That’s what happened with UI graduate student Jorge Coelho, MS ’97 BUS, MS ’02 LIS, who had participated in a computer networking project in the East St. Louis program. He and Paul Adams, Coelho’s adviser and director of community networking with the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science, then took that same model to Coelho’s native São Tomé, where they installed computer labs and access points for several years.
Meanwhile, Adams had additional plans for the Teen Tech Team, a program which teaches hardware skills and software applications to young people and had been used in East St. Louis. “Since setting up computer labs in East St. Louis also worked in São Tomé,” he said, “it was time to take Teen Tech on the road, too.”
Of the three students chosen for that journey, one was Hines.
“The whole idea was the Teen Tech kids were going to teach what they knew about computers to kids at the high school and together set up a computer lab,” says Adams.
And so a pebble, dropped in the “pond” of East St. Louis, created ripples that lapped the shores of Africa.
Aronson is a freelance writer who lives in Urbana with her husband and two children.