Engaging students in learning outside the university

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Credit: Pixabay, andreas160578, CC0

As first and second programme directors, and respective organisers of two innovative, experiential MA courses in the School of Health in Social Sciences, Alette Willis and Marion Smith, chat about the benefits for learning through student engagement with the local community… 

Alette begins: We are launching a new experiential learning course on the MA in Health, Science and Society: Nature, Greenspace and Health (SHSS10010). This course will centre on a real world problem brought to the class by a community group. This year, we’ll be working with Social Responsibility and Sustainability to explore how biodiversity on University sites impacts on people’s well-being. Nature, Greenspace and Health builds on our previous success with Learning from the Lives of Others (SHSS08003).

Marion explains: I was heavily involved in the design and implementation of the new undergraduate MA in Health, Science and Society in 2013-2014. From the start, we wanted a strand running through the programme that achieved particular aims. These were:

  • A genuine contribution to communities local to the University.
  • An opportunity for students to gain developmental, transferable skills by learning outside the library and the lecture theatre from the start.
  • The creation of a porous element beyond the somewhat cloistered university environment, such that students could make experiential connections between ‘book learning’ and ‘real life’.

We also wanted to provide opportunities for students new to Edinburgh to become inhabitants of their new home city.

The main thrust of the MA programme, with its interest in social justice, was a perfect environment to develop these aims and to contribute to University priorities. Learning from the Lives of Others (pre-honours) was our first course to achieve this. I developed it in partnership with various nonprofit organisations, which have a health and well-being focus, to allow students to carry out voluntary work while studying concepts and materials which have a connection to the lives they encounter. They are assessed through a poster on citizenship and their voluntary activities, and a reflective essay that allows a balance between their ‘outside’ experiential learning and their broader understanding of the social problems involved.

Alette continues: Nature, Greenspace and Health picks up this strand in the honours years, enabling students to get hands-on experience at working as a team on an issue of concern to the local community by:

  • Exploring that issue through developing their understanding of the problem.
  • Creating a plan to improve the situation.
  • Presenting their work to members of the community.

Parallel to working on the community problem, students will be supported in learning about teamwork and planning and carrying out their project. The team-produced report and presentation to the community will comprise one part of the assessment, while the students’ individual contributions and reflections on their development in working collaboratively will comprise the other.

Marion and Alette both reflect: Running a course that involves community engagement is not always the easiest road to travel. Liaising with community groups can be time consuming. Balancing real-world learning and academic rigour in assessments can be challenging. Colleagues on Boards of Studies sometimes need to be convinced that the benefits to students of taking their studies outside of standard course routines outweigh the risks and the heavier resourcing ratios. Students themselves can be reluctant to sign up for a course that might take them out of their academic comfort zone. However, in our experience, teaching in a way that makes a concrete contribution to both students and broader communities can be very rewarding.

We are excited to see the further development of this experiential strand in our programme. This strand is close to both our hearts and we are delighted to give our students the opportunity to also learn from and contribute to wider communities through positive engagement.

Alette Willis

Alette Willis PhD is Chancellor’s Fellow/Lecturer in the school of Health in Social Sciences, a professional storyteller and award-winning children’s author (Dancing with Trees: Eco-tales of the British Isles, 2017), and a student on the Permaculture Association’s diploma programme.

Marion Smith

Dr Marion Smith is a Lecturer in the School of Health in Social Sciences. Her teaching focus is in the recently established MA Health, Science and Society, and her research interests are in the experience of pain, and language in communication and creation of both research data and shared social space.

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