The James River looks and feels different from a kayak than it does when discussed within the classroom.

On a boat, University of Richmond students in Dr. Todd Lookingbill's course Geography of the James River Watershed use all five senses to observe and react to the space around them. The experience can’t be recreated with a book. The excitement and wonder fostered on the river fuel collaborative research projects between professors, students, and community partners.

Experiential-learning models not only deepen students’ engagement with the subject material, but also influence how professors teach and shape their research. An increasing number of UR professors collaborate with the community on projects that explore social and ecological disciplines on local and global scales.

Dr. Carlos Valencia’s Spanish in the Community course took on a new dimension for him when he began tutoring in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Bon Air Elementary School in neighboring Chesterfield County three years ago. His investment in the program is evident from the photo album he received as a gift this May.

Compiled by Bon Air’s ESL teacher, the album pages show elementary students tutored and mentored by Valencia or his UR students and illustrate the collaborative UR-Bon Air partnership.

Valencia has taken two students he tutors on excursions to the movies or bowling. He says he was surprised by the difference those relationships made in his own life and the students’ lives.

“The flow between us and them is a two-way street,” he said of the UR-Bon Air partnership.

Valencia, UR students, and Bon Air students and staff collaborate in the ESL classroom to build language skills and create an environment where each individual contributes as a learner and a teacher.

Similarly, Dr. Nuray Grove of the modern literatures and cultures department said several communities unite when she and her students prepare and implement the International Culture Club at Henderson Middle School in Northside Richmond.

In 2011 Grove added a community-based learning (CBL) component to her courses designed for international students. Grove hoped CBL would allow international students to engage in American culture and practice English.

This year Grove participated with her students to plan and implement the International Culture Club. She shifted her CBL goals based on her firsthand experience with the challenges and rewards of cross-cultural dialogue.

The International Culture Club programming is now more interactive and enjoyable and creates beneficial mentoring relationships between UR and Henderson students, Grove said.

Dr. David Salisbury of the geography and the environment department also has an international angle to his CBL. Salisbury’s students collaborate with and advocate for the Saweto community in the Amazon.

Salisbury first met the Saweto in 2004 during his dissertation research. He realized that powerful logging companies threatened to displace the Saweto community. The Saweto community is still working to gain rights to their land.

Salisbury’s geography students created maps of land rights in the Amazon and completed extensive research on the land rights in indigenous communities to aid indigenous groups, NGOs, and government agencies in the Amazon.

National Geographic published an article on illegal logging in Peru in its April 2013 issue, and the article’s author worked with Salisbury and his students while doing research.

The critical implications of this project motivate students and faculty to invest in the complex partnership.

“Through community-based research, students learn to take risks,” Salisbury said. Likewise, personal and professional risk taking fuels Salisbury’s research in the Amazon.

After geography professor Lookingbill and his students carried their kayaks back to land, they discussed many aspects of the river for the remainder of the semester. The living-and-learning community Earth Lodge integrates Lookingbill’s interest in outdoor recreation with his academic background in physical geography.

His relationships with James River Park System and area environmental experts provide field trips and local context for his courses. Lookingbill’s network of environmental scientists inspires and deepens undergraduate research projects that blend scientific research, like watershed assessment, with management. 

In September 2012, Ice Mountain in West Virginia was evaluated and designated as a National Landmark by the National Park Service after student Jonathan Mayfield, ’10, worked with Lookingbill to evaluate and recommend the site.

Experiential learning invites curiosity. From a kayak, the jungle, or the elementary or middle-school classroom, a person thinks differently about their place in the world and starts relating to an otherwise unfamiliar environment.

Photo: Students engaged in experiential learning as part of the course Geography of the James River Watershed.