April 5, 2022

How to build community engagement and partnerships into student learning opportunities

Five tips from seasoned experiential learning instructors
ZOOL 567 final exhibit in December 2021
Students share and celebrate research and expertise during final exhibition for zoology course, December 2021. Jessica O'Connell

Learning by doing. That’s what experiential learning is all about, and many educators are incorporating this concept into their teaching.

Dr. Mindi Summers,, PhD, and Dr. Adela Teserek Kincaid, PhD, two University of Calgary instructors, say partnering with community organizations on learning and research projects is an effective way to design experiential-learning opportunities.

Recently, Summers gave students the opportunity to be mentored by professionals in the animal-care sector. Students in her zoology class, Animal Behaviour (ZOOL 567), worked to produce a scientific literature review and dissemination piece as part of a collaboration with Alberta Farm Animal Care, Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation and the Calgary Humane Society (CHS).

In another class, Indigenous Ethics and Protocol (INDG 415), part of International Indigenous Studies, Kincaid forged partnerships with Indigenous communities, including the Stoney Nakoda and Siksika First Nations, and UCalgary’s Indigenous Student Access Program (ISAP), to guide her students through the creation of a culturally sound, community-based research proposal with their assigned organization. 

Kincaid and Summers offer some tips for fellow instructors keen on incorporating communities and partners into their experiential learning practices.

1. Look for ways to create meaningful impact

For Kincaid, meaningful impact means providing her partners with actionable student work. By focusing on topics that are relevant and valuable to the organizations, she says, “Community partners are able to implement or complete projects that students have designed. Students have also … served in various capacities to help the organizations meet their goals.” 

The need for meaningful impact doesn’t stop with community partners; students cite the real-world impact of their projects as crucial to their learning.

Having the opportunity to make direct, effective and positive impacts on the community through a course project is one of the best things that has progressed my learning, research abilities and communication skills,” says ZOOL 567 student Kari Pedder, who worked with CHS last fall.

Says Sally Johnston, manager of animal operations at CHS: “We were so lucky to be given tangible, well-researched resource materials that will have a positive impact on the animals entering our shelter for years to come.”

2. Prioritize relationships

Relationships are like gold in community-engaged learning and research, says Kincaid. “The work and learning could not take place without institutional and community partnerships,” she says, noting the value of her own partnerships with community-based academic researchers, Indigenous organizations and organizations that work with or for Indigenous communities.

“Working with a community in INDG 415 really showed me the importance of relationships while doing research,” says student Florence Kayseas, who volunteered with ISAP as a peer mentor while working with staff to develop a research proposal on their peer-mentorship program.

“It gave me experience of working with real people and made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than an assignment for a class.”

Adds fellow student Amber Big Plume: “Working with real issues with real people in a real community kept the humanness of our project constantly in focus and encouraged us to always remain authentic.”  

Summers credits partnerships not only with her students’ development, but also her own. “I found working with our community partners so inspiring,” she says. “Through our partnerships, I was able to learn how the content covered in my course connects to important work taking place in Alberta and how students can apply the skills (they learn) to real-world applications.” 

3. Nourish student engagement

Kincaid and Summers find their students’ motivation receives a significant boost when working with community partners. “Students really appreciated the opportunity to interact with and learn from (our) partners,” says Summers. “I hope that (this) will lead to longer-term collaborations and an awareness of the many ways they can contribute to our community.”

Big Plume acknowledges the important role community partners and instructors play in nourishing and supporting student engagement. “We were able to experience the dynamic, living nature of learning and researching when we were welcomed into the community,” she says.

“We were fortunate to have constant guidance from our professor/mentor … which was so important to our work remaining relevant, reciprocal and accountable.”

4. Champion community- and student-led creativity

Summers encourages her students to think outside the box, setting up a consultation process where students propose creative solutions for feedback and guidance from their partners.

“It was exciting to see the students and community partners co-create the projects in ZOOL 567,” Summers says. “Students created infographics, videos, podcasts and other pieces to both reach the intended audience and best showcase their skills.”  

INDG 415 students were encouraged to be creative in their approach to working with community partners as well, says Kincaid, speaking of students Big Plume, Kayseas and Miranda Christin’s project: “Their hope was to make meaningful contributions to ISAP and to also become embedded volunteers within the program itself. Through their respectful, thoughtful and collaborative approach, I believe that they surpassed both of those expectations.” 

5. Take advantage of time and supports

Kincaid says time must be invested to create ethical, reciprocal partnerships with community partners and recommends looking at options for additional resources and funding for community-engaged learning and research at the institutional, provincial and federal levels, including TI Teaching and Learning Grants and Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL Canada)'s iHub Grants.

For Summers, preparation makes all the difference in community-engaged learning. “Working with community partners requires a significant investment of time before launching a course, as well as throughout the course offering,” she says, pointing to UCalgary’s Office of Experiential Learning as a key source of support for the design and implementation of experiential learning.

“I highly recommend joining a community of practice and engaging experts in community-based learning for guidance and support.”

The Office of Experiential Learning develops resources and templates to assist instructors with the design and implementation of learning by doing. Looking to boost student engagement and learning with community-based teaching, but unsure where to start? Email experientiallearning@ucalgary.ca for more information.

The Office of Experiential Learning (OEL) engages, connects and supports the campus and broader communities to build capacity for, enhance access to and promote high-impact experiential learning opportunities for all UCalgary students. Learn more about the OEL and connect here.

Adela Teserek Kincaid is an instructor and researcher in the International Indigenous Studies Program in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts and adjunct professor at the University of Regina. Her expertise is in rural community-based research and animal-human relationships. 

Mindi Summers is a senior instructor in ecology and evolutionary biology in the Department of Biological Sciences in UCalgary's Faculty of Science. Her research focuses on student learning and undergraduate research experiences in invertebrate diversity, ecology, behaviour and systematics.