Talking through turbulent times

February 27, 2017

Project profile: Pilot interdisciplinary project sheds lights on the global refugee crisis


More than 90 students from four programs spanning three faculties are coming together this semester in a pilot project to talk about the global refugee crisis. They are attending lectures, participating in an online discussion board, writing papers and working on group projects. It may sound like any other university course, but with one important difference—these students aren’t earning a single course credit.

Volunteering to take on extra work isn’t something you might expect from students who already have jam-packed schedules, but participants say what they’re gaining from the experience goes beyond grades.

“There are a lot of people coming to Canada right now who have gone through some really horrible things,” says Mac Robinson, a second-year Bachelor of Arts student who is participating in the dialogue as part of Dr. Asma Sayed’s comparative literature course. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about who these people are and what they’re about, and the first step in welcoming these people to our country should be learning more about their situation.” 

“ I think there are a lot of misconceptions about who these people
are and what they’re about, and the first step in welcoming these people to our country should be learning more about their situation.
” Mac Robinson 

That learning begins with speaker panels that include MacEwan University faculty members, community group members, academics from other universities and refugees themselves. Then students discuss their answers to open-ended questions on an online discussion board with students from other courses and programs, including Asma’s comparative literature course, anthropology faculty member Leslie Dawson’s course on race and racism in the modern world, healthy populations courses in the Faculty of Nursing offered by Dr. Elizabeth Burgess-Pinto and faculty member Ann Little, and Dr. Valerie Ouedraogo’s intercultural practices in social work course.

“We don’t typically get a chance to interact with people from different programs,” says Linda Au, a third-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing student. “When we raise our hands in class, our questions always relate back to nursing, but it’s really nice to hear different perspectives. The questions other students ask might not relate to my experience in nursing directly, but they still matter. We face similar issues, and it’s interesting to see how we all approach them in different ways.” 

“ We face similar issues, and it's interesting to see how we all approach them in different ways.” Linda Au 

That’s exactly the response faculty members hoped for when they set out to create this interdisciplinary pilot project.

“For me, it is about taking a holistic approach to education,” says Larisa Hayduk, international academic advisor, who brought the organizing team of faculty members, librarians and advisors together. “It’s about educating the whole person, it’s about citizenship education, and it’s about allowing students to see multiple perspectives and respect all of them. This is one way we can do that.”

Asma agrees that the experience is about students having something to take away that stays with them.

“One of the things that's at the back of my mind when teaching any given class is how can students take what they are learning beyond the classroom,” she says. “With this project, students are learning what they need to learn for the particular course, and a lot more. They are connecting with one another. They are learning to think about the world. They are engaging with the local community, and also engaging with the larger global community—becoming aware of global issues and becoming global citizens. That is one of the outcomes from the project that excites us.” 

Project profile: The basics

In addition to attending two of three educational forums and participating in online discussions, students also complete a paper or project that is part of the regular course, but tweaked to fit the topics being explored by the panel discussions.

The pilot will wrap up with a conference in April that includes keynote speakers and the chance for students to present their papers or projects.

And while they don’t get extra credit, they don’t leave empty handed either. Students get a letter of completion that they can use to demonstrate their community engagement when applying for jobs or scholarships.

What’s next?

“Someone said the other day that we all fell in love with this project,” says Larisa. “We knew it was an ambitious and complex project from the beginning, but we have been figuring things out step by step. It is truly an example of teamwork, and it also takes an innovative approach that can serve as a model for other cross-disciplinary learning and teaching collaborations at MacEwan. There are so many layers to what we are doing.”

Two of those many layers are teaching and research. Faculty members are using this pilot as an opportunity to research the scholarship of teaching and learning. “Often we separate teaching and research,” says Leslie. “But this has turned out to be teaching-informed research and research-informed teaching—both are happening at the same time.”

Next year, they expect the project—and the dialogue—to evolve and grow. A new topic is already in the works and will change each year moving forward.

“Our hope is that more classes will get involved and that forums will be available online so there is more flexibility and more students can participate,” says Leslie. “That will allow us to create even more accessibility and an even bigger dialogue for next time.”

The project won the Global Awareness Week Faculty Challenge, and the final educational forum focusing on global citizenship is on Tuesday, February 28 focusing on global citizenship. Everyone is welcome to attend.

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