In a new twist on a biology class for non-science majors, students in Paula Lessem's "Emerging Infectious Diseases" course created teaching modules on topics ranging from the benefits of hand washing to AIDS prevention.

Under Lessem's supervision, her students tailored these teaching modules to different grade levels and presented them in interactive sessions to students at two area schools, Huguenot High School and Southside Baptist Christian School.

Lessem's students learned the subject material better and found it more relevant as a result of teaching it to elementary, middle and high school students. "This class gives non-majors a chance to talk science," Lessem said.

And students in two underserved local schools gained an increased awareness of the importance of basic biology in their lives. "If we impact even a small number of students, we can increase science literacy in this country," Lessem said.

Like Lessem, University of Richmond faculty members from a wide range of disciplines are experimenting with different types of community-based learning.

Any class that connects students to the greater Richmond community through experiential learning is considered a community-based learning class: some have brought community partners into the classroom, produced documentaries, taught in schools or prisons and executed organizational studies and consulting.

Encouraging the Development of Community-Based Learning

Last summer the University's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement launched a competitive fellowship to fund faculty members seeking to transform or create a course with an integrated community-based learning component. The inaugural group of faculty fellows comprised 13 professors hailing from the schools of arts and sciences, leadership studies, business and law.

Some departments and schools have a long-standing history of engaging their students in community-based learning. Spanish-language classes have been involved with the Hispanic community in Richmond for years. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies builds in community-based components throughout the four-year curriculum.

"When people think about leadership," Dean Sandra Peart said, "they think about doing things, about effecting change." Therefore, leadership studies must include an experiential-learning component, according to Peart.

But other disciplines can also benefit from this teaching methodology.

Andy Litteral, associate professor of management in the Robins School of Business, decided to shake up his statistics course a few years ago. Instead of asking his students to solve problems in a textbook, he sent them into the community to run statistics for local nonprofits.

Jennifer Erkulwater, associate professor of political science, taught a spring 2009 course on "Poverty and Political Voice" in which students examined four policy issues — education, employment and family life, crime, and health — through working with the CCE's community partners in an inner-city neighborhood.

In the "WILL Senior Seminar" taught by Holly Blake, associate dean for women's education and development, students worked with homeless women and children at St. Joseph's Villa, a partnership cultivated through the CCE's Richmond Families Initiative.

Impact on Students and Community

"Students find community-based learning courses very challenging because they are required to actively participate to a much greater degree [than in more traditional classes]," said Terry Dolson, the CCE's community-based learning manager. "These are the kinds of classes that students say change their lives."

Jess Walradt, '10, who explored the correlation between health and poverty by volunteering at a medical respite center for the homeless to fulfill a community-based learning requirement, said that these courses afford students the chance to challenge their preconceptions. "Every time I go [to the respite center]," Walradt said, "I talk to the patients and learn from them. As a result, my perception of the homeless is changing."

In addition to changing the lives of students, community-based learning can change the community. "By using our resources for the community," Dolson said, "we can start to see an impact on the community."