Making the transition from classroom study to practical application can be a tricky step in the evolution of student learning. What seems straightforward in text can seem impossibly complicated when reality gets in the way.

“The real world is messy,” says Terry Dolson, manager of community-based learning in the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). “When students participate in actual events, meet real people, develop real relationships, it troubles the notion of any sort of simple solution. They’re challenged to make sense of things that have no simple answer.”

Community-based learning (CBL) courses help students navigate the collision of theory and reality. Combining those two thought processes in an integrated way ultimately shatters assumptions, challenges theories and asks students to question their sense of the world, says Amy Howard, CCE executive director.

“That’s our aim as a center — to equip students with the tools of civic engagement, and understanding of others and difference,” Howard says. “So wherever they land — whether it’s Birmingham or Botswana — they will know how to find and use the tools to be an active, dedicated member of their community. That’s how social change is going to happen.”

Students are clearly on board with the concept. Last year, more than 1,300 students signed up for 68 CBL courses, a number that’s expected to climb this year. But the CCE saw another avenue for further CBL development — the faculty.

“It became clear to us that CBL is such a great thing to have in the curriculum, but really, that only happens because faculty do it,” Dolson says. “This wasn’t something we saw being fruitfully mandated. It was a faculty development opportunity, but it needed to be done in a multi-faceted, really rich way.”

Allowing faculty to build their own CBL program has encouraged buy-in around campus, but the flexibility means faculty don’t always have an established structure to follow.  “There’s not a set trajectory, there’s not a required path, there’s not a rigidity,” Howard says. “There’s a dynamic, fluid way of exploring, dabbling, and thinking about community engagement in the classroom.”

Thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the CCE will have the chance to explore those varied trajectories, and offer faculty new ways to engage. Howard and Dolson are excited about the possibilities, touting such examples as expanding the CBL Faculty Fellowships program to include a track for faculty who want to delve deeper into the scholarship of teaching and learning; growing a grants program for conference attendance and presentations; opening doors to community-based research; and providing funding for community field trips.

The CCE even organized a tour of the city for new faculty this year as an introduction to the surrounding area — no strings attached. “Whether they want to do community-based learning or not, it doesn’t matter,” Howard says. “They’re going to be citizens of this place and we want to show them all that this region has to offer.”

Though the possibilities may be endless, Howard and Dolson agree that better tracking of programs and results will be one critical use of the grant’s funds. Student experiences and learning outcomes remain at the forefront, but improved methodology for data collection will allow the CCE to gauge the affect their work has on community partner goals.

“We put these things in place, but then it’s really hard to make the time to listen carefully, read what they do, observe their projects, talk to the faculty,” Dolson says. “We try to be really intentional about not just getting superficial feedback. We are building that into the DNA of these programs. The way to grow a program is to be looking and listening all the time to what’s really happening.”