Eye-opening lessons in store for students and faculty members

March 26, 2012

On the first day of Radio Journalism in fall 2011, one student thought she might need a bodyguard for her final assignment. While she didn’t share this thought at the time, other students were more vocal about their concerns.

But not all of the students were so apprehensive about the assignment. In fact, faculty member Karen Zypchyn says about half of her class was eager to begin.

The plan? Students would live on the streets of Edmonton for three days in order to familiarize themselves with poverty in their community. No money, no cell phones – students would sleep in shelters, wait in food lines and perform tasks for the Mustard Seed, an inner-city not-for-profit that assists people living in poverty.

Making connections

By “living in the trenches” of real homelessness, explains Karen, the students would connect with real people on the street.

The purpose? Karen, a Journalism faculty member in the Bachelor of Communication Studies program, wanted her up-and-coming journalists to be informed about poverty. As part of their final assignment, they would produce radio segments about poverty on the home-front for the CBC’s 2011 Turkey Drive.

“That kind of learning is difficult to capture in a classroom setting,” she says.

Karen also wanted this service learning aspect to encourage her students to become compassionate and community-minded citizens.

Encouraging civic engagement

“Service learning provides faculty and students with authentic and exciting learning opportunities beyond classroom walls that can foster deep and meaningful learning as well as develop a greater sense of civic engagement,” describes Stephanie Rosse, workplace learning coordinator in the Academic Quality Assurance and Accreditation department.

To reassure the students that they had the university’s full support, Karen, along with Stephanie Rosse, Centre for the Arts and Communications dean Denise Roy and the Students’ Association (which covered the cost for the 15 students to participate in the Mustard Seed’s Street Retreat program), used the first class to present the project to the students.

The students pushed aside their nerves and committed to following through with the assignment – and without bodyguards.

At the semester’s end, 50 per cent of the students’ produced segments aired live during the turkey drive (all segments are available for a listen online).

Service learning inside the classroom

Marketing and Design Studies students joined forces as part of their own service learning assignment, but stayed within the classroom. Faculty members Marc Brisbourne, chair of the Design Studies program, and Leo Wong, assistant marketing professor in the School of Business, collaborated on an assignment called “Conscious Consumerism.”

Together, the students developed the functionality and appearance for a theoretical consumer website that allows businesses to share information about their sustainability and social responsibility practices.

“The information is out there,” says Leo, explaining that companies already share this information, but consumers are tasked with searching through websites and annual reports to find it. “The concept is how to communicate this easily to consumers.”

After the marketing students combed through and organized the information of real companies, the design students developed a mock website design. Leo received positive remarks from students who enjoyed an assignment based on social responsibility.

A different assignment

“The main benefit of the project was that it was something different than what the students were used to,” says Marc. “It opened their eyes to something they never thought about before.”

After sharing their service learning experiences at a showcase in February, Karen hopes there will be further opportunities for service learning as part of upper-level courses in the new Bachelor of Communication Studies, and Leo and Marc are discussing how they might collaborate on an similar assignment for the next fall term.

Banner photo by Trevor Robb.

Photo: Journalism students (left to right) Cheryl Waddleton, Maxwell Rausch and Heather Rastas walk the streets of downtown Edmonton on October 15, as part of a project to learn about poverty.

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