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Critical Thinking, Community Engagement Shaping Classroom Experiences


By Mike Emery

It's a Saturday morning, and more than 500 University of Houston-Downtown students aren't at home resting from a long week of school and work. Instead, these Gators - all clad in blue - are filing into the Houston Food Bank. They're contributing their time and energies to help feed Houstonians in need.

Their presence is part of UHD's Business Cornerstone course - offered through the College of Business - and is a prime example of the institution's commitment to service learning and community engagement. It's among the offerings at UHD in which the community becomes a living, breathing classroom.

During the food bank visit, students sort food (all bagged and canned), package it in boxes and prepare it to be delivered to Houstonians in need. Students work up a sweat in the food bank's warehouse facility. Still, no one is inconvenienced. In fact, these students are having a great time while taking direction from the Houston Food Bank's staff.

"We're working, but at the same time, we're having fun," said junior business major Thin Cao as he places items on a rotating conveyor shelf. "We're learning about team building and creating bonds, and it feels good to contribute to the community."

Business Cornerstone is a required sophomore level course focused on decision-making skills needed in today's workforce. All Cornerstone students are required to volunteer for the Houston Food Bank and write a paper detailing their experiences.

"Students are able to apply what they've learned in class to this experience," said lecturer Robert Irabor. "We want them to understand how they can use these concepts to benefit themselves and the community. That's the basis of this. We call it service learning."

Service learning has become synonymous with the University of Houston-Downtown. A number of courses are incorporating projects and assignments similar to this Houston Food Bank effort.

The Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) helps coordinate such efforts. Likewise, the center connects the UHD community with educational opportunities that impact both students and the community.

Led by Poonam Gulati Salhotra, the center's director, CCESL assists faculty in securing grants that support service learning curriculum. The center also assigns a service learning designation to course sections that incorporate community-oriented activities. Each semester, UHD offers more than 30 sections that have been identified as fulfilling service learning requirements. College of Business courses partner with Neighborhood Centers Inc. to provide tax guidance for Houstonians. Another project, "Veg Out," is based in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences' Communication Studies Program. Professors Creshema Murray and Ashley Archiopoli lead students in researching and communicating healthy eating habits. College of Sciences and Technology professors Gabriela Bowden and Meghan Minard led a service learning course that allows students to author a blog dispelling myths surrounding genetically modified organisms, artificial sweeteners, trans fats, antibiotics in food, vaccines and antibacterial soaps.

Gulati herself is no stranger to community engagement and service learning. As a microbiology professor, she led students to Houston elementary and middle schools to assist in class experiments and guest lectures.

"My students got a lot out of these experiences," she said. "They had opportunities to do new and interesting things with microbiology, and it made the subject matter more pertinent. And they served as role models for the students they taught."

Gulati also collaborated with UHD's Urban Education (UE) Department in an initiative that helped UE students become more prepared to teach science in schools. Gulati's students mentored UE students in preparing science lessons and experiments to be delivered in elementary school classrooms.

"My students would visit the classrooms to make sure the experiments ran smoothly, and they never realized how much they could impact the community as sophomores in college," Gulati said. "They felt really good about the process, and the elementary students looked up to the UHD microbiology students as 'scientists.'"

The center is aimed at connecting the UHD community with local partners for projects such as these. One way it does that is through a Community Partners Fair offering local non-profits and other organizations an opportunity to connect with UHD. Faculty, staff and students have an opportunity to meet with representatives of these groups to discuss potential collaborations.

Faculty aren't the only UHD community members who are eligible for grants through CCESL. Students also can apply for grants that support community service projects tied to coursework or conducted independently. Recently, student grants were awarded to Eisha Khan for the "Around the World Series" that spotlights cultures not often encountered on campus; and Milimar Murillo and Abigail Murillo for the project "Cosplay," which delivers costume plays for adolescents and the elderly.

The Center facilitates UHD's Academic Achievement through Community Engagement (A+CE) course sections that are offered to First Time in College (FTIC) students. A+CE is UHD's Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a component of the University's reaffirmation of its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. It promotes critical thinking by using community issues.

"The primary outcome of the QEP is to stimulate students' creative and analytical skills and provoke intellectual responses to civic and societal issues that are challenging the very ethos of our community," said Faiza Khoja, associate vice president for Academic Affairs.

According to Khoja, A+CE course sections can be taught in three modes: awareness, integration and involvement. At the awareness mode, students become aware of community and social issues through coursework examining those issues. Course assignments might include a book discussion, case study, position argument, or research project. Integration engages external community expertise in the course. Students may engage with community issues through coursework enhanced with guest speakers, panels, documentaries or public deliberation events. Involvement requires students to apply classroom learning in the community. Examples include students connecting coursework with community experiences or projects that require direct engagement with the partners in the field.

Ultimately, the different modes will be analyzed based on student performance to assess which is the most effective in promoting critical thinking and learning and whether students' critical thinking skills are progressively improving. Students who complete four A+CE designated courses will earn an Engaged Scholar badge.

The most important thing is that students will engage in learning about community issues while developing problem-solving and critical thinking skills, Khoja said. "You need that for anything you do," Khoja said. "Undergraduate education is about learning and applying skills. A+CE courses will help provide students the foundational skills that will be applied in careers or graduate studies.

"And our students are from the community, so they want to give back. Building civic engagement is another part of UHD's mission. Yes, we want students to learn and earn degrees, but we also want to nurture their interests in contributing their time, energy and talents to the community."

Many UHD students are engaged in community service or civic engagement activities outside of the classroom through involvement in student organizations. One of the most visible examples of students making a difference is Walk 2 Vote, an event aimed at inspiring Houstonians to exercise their right to vote. Led by UHD's Student Government Association, Walk 2 Vote is a procession from campus to the Harris County Tax Office to cast ballots. Last fall, hundreds of students and community members (including Hip Hop giant Bun B) made the trek to vote during the 2016 presidential election. That kicked off with a number of speakers, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

"Our mission is to inspire people to vote," said student John Locke, who also serves as the chair of the local and national Walk 2 Vote initiative. "Civic engagement and getting involved in democracy are very important, but it's not happening as much as it should. Walk 2 Vote is about encouraging citizens to participate in the process."

Another student-led effort is UHD's Animal Rescue Club. History professor Aaron Gillette posed the dilemma of the number of dogs and cats sitting in shelters and ultimately euthanized to his students. He suggested the idea of the Animal Rescue Club, and senior history major Travis Carter was one of its founding members. For Carter, the club was an opportunity to help with a cause he is passionate about and become more involved with the University.

"For a while, I was just showing up to classes, going home, then doing it all over again," he said. "It was fine, but I didn't really feel engaged with the campus. I wanted to find a way that I could contribute to this campus and to others."

The club doesn't necessarily rescue homeless dogs and cats, but rather creates a network of student volunteers who assist animal shelters and pet rescue groups. Activities include pet adoptions at local PetSmart and Petco stores and working with adoptable cats at a cattery in West Houston.

Although this club is not affiliated with a class, it has taught Carter a thing or two about self-confidence and organization. Last year, he coordinated the University's first Animal Welfare Conference and has spoken to the media on the issue of homeless dogs and cats in Houston.

A former football player, Carter doesn't find inspiration from the words of Vince Lombardi or other gridiron greats. Instead, a peace activist's words motivates his mission.

"Gandhi's quote, 'A community is reflected on how it treats its children and animals' struck a chord with me," he said. "Those words motivate me to make a difference and help others."

Gators definitely give back to the city in many ways. For some students, it's part of the academic experience. For others, it's a way of learning outside of the classroom. In either case, it's the UHD way.

"I could not be more proud than when I hear of our students doing something to help their neighbors," said UHD Interim President Michael A. Olivas. "At this institution, this is a regular occurrence. Our students are reflective of this great city. They continue to give back to make Houston a bigger and better place to live."