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Interdisciplinary community-connected capstone courses: a model for engaging undergraduates with public policy.

Community-connected learning that intentionally engages students with "real world" research through integrative academic experiences advances a range of learning and developmental goals for students (e.g. Kuh 2008; Eyler et al. 2001; Vogelgesang et al. 2000; Eyler and Giles 1999; Jacoby and Associates 1996). These goals include personal outcomes, such as personal efficacy and improved interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills; social outcomes, such as enhanced cultural understanding, citizenship skills, and social responsibility; and learning outcomes, such as demonstrated complexity of understanding, analytical skills, and critical thinking (Eyler et al. 2001).

Skill sets that are paramount for effective policy-making and for addressing today's social and environmental challenges include: (1) the ability to integrate knowledge from across a range of disciplines (Jacobs 2001; National Research Council 1999; Stern and Easterling 1999), (2) the ability to address and even anticipate social and systems complexity (Guerts 2011; Snowden et al. 2007; UNESCO 2012), (3) historical, cultural, and political understanding (National Council for the Social Studies 2008; UNESCO 2012), and (4) appreciating the extent to which personal values and local context influence the way people behave and review and evaluate information (Stone 2002; Bevir 2010; Castree et al. 2014).


These four categories also speak to modern-day science and society issues--that is, you cannot address the full complexity of issues from just one (scientific) perspective; that differing cultural and political values call for a range of problem-solving approaches; and that processes of engagement that are responsive to ranges of perspectives result in more innovative and resilient solutions (Sarewitz 2015; AAAS 2015).

Here I present four years of quantitative student-assessment data from Middlebury College's interdisciplinary community-connected research practicum--the capstone course for the undergraduate major in environmental studies. The data highlight students' learning gains in the skill sets detailed above and also illustrate the strong correlations between the outcomes of community-connected experiences and policy-relevant skill sets. I also present two models (with two case studies each) in which capstone research projects were explicitly framed around policy questions. Qualitative student assessment data from these four cases highlight further gains in the policy-relevant skill sets; quantitative data are not provided because one case preceded formalized quantitative assessment, and the total number of student respondents in the remaining three cases represents less than 25 percent of the full assessment database. The qualitative data highlight the transformative experience of having students directly engage with the policy-development process, including instilling a desire to continue to be engaged in civic issues and strengthening a suite of personal-efficacy skills.

Capstone Course Model

Middlebury College's environmental studies capstone is designed to have students integrate and apply a range of disciplinary perspectives to a community challenge. Interdisciplinary thinking is enhanced through the core/ focus/capstone structure of our major (Middlebury College 2015a). The consideration of diverse perspectives is further promoted by (1) practicum partnerships with "guest experts" from the community who lead field trips, present their work and research, and mentor students during the semester, and (2) faculty and staff representing varied expertise who respond to students' oral and written reports on the progress of their projects.

Projects presenting research challenges are developed with our community partners in advance of the semester. Students typically work in teams of five, within a 15- to 20-person seminar. The seminar is dedicated to project-based work, yet also includes six sessions of student-led discussion of readings in the relevant literature, three field trips and/or meetings with guest experts, reflective writing assignments, and a workshop on persuasive speaking. Project management consists of a minimum of three sessions with the community partner, written work plans and progress reports, weekly oral progress reports for peer feedback, and a mid-term oral progress report for faculty and staff. The seminar culminates with oral and written presentations.

The themes for the seminar are determined through a combination of known community needs and the areas of interest and expertise of the faculty leading the seminar. A dedicated staff position makes the relevant community contacts with area organizations, state and local agencies, and state legislative committees. We also capitalize on our alumni network, past faculty research collaborators, "repeat partners," and the hosts of internship sites. Potential partners also contact us based on their knowledge of the history of the seminar. We are fortunate to have a highly accessible legislature and state agencies that have as part of their mission working collaboratively with educational institutions in the state.

Quantitative Assessment Results

We have been conducting a quantitative assessment of the capstone since fall 2011. In four years, students in 12 seminars involving more than 30 separate projects were surveyed, yielding 198 unique responses. Table 1 details the set of learning outcomes that are assessed, grouped by the personal, social, and learning outcomes defined by Eyler et al. (2001). Given that the assessment tool addresses learning outcomes beyond the categories of policy-relevant skill sets, the assessment discussion in this article focuses on the nine outcomes that can be correlated to these categories, as depicted in Table 1.

The assessment of the capstone is one component of a much larger programmatic survey that also includes sections on the overall program's learning goals and co-curricular experiences; it was initially stimulated by the college's reaccreditation requirements. While we began with (and are still currently using) an indirect measure for assessing students' learning (e.g., student survey, self-reported) (Sternberg et al. 2011), we have gained insights into areas worthy of deeper exploration with more sophisticated assessment techniques (e.g., performance-based assessments and rubrics) (Sternberg et al. 2011; AAC&U 2007). We have also done a pilot pre-course and post-course assessment for a set of new community-connected classes outside of the capstone seminar.

Figures 1a, b, and c present histograms for learning outcomes that are particularly relevant for effective policy-making and for addressing today's social and environmental challenges. Assessment questions are phrased as, "to what extent has your participation in the senior capstone achieved the following?" Responses are based on a 1-7 Likert scale with 1 being "not at all" and 7 being "extensively." The Y-axis denotes number of students (n=198). The histograms represent a range of distributions from relatively symmetrical to strongly (negatively) skewed.





Given that values 5, 6, and 7 on the Likert scale represent improvement in the learning outcome being assessed, the sum of students' 5, 6 and 7 responses (as a percentage of the total) is more intuitive than a statistic like skewness for evaluating efficacy. This "positive score" (PS) ranges from 45.7 percent to 85.3 percent of the total responses. The question with the highest positive score related to "enhanced understanding of state and local issues" (85.3 percent), underscoring one of the primary social outcomes of community-connected learning experiences. The next highest positive score was related to "deepened your understanding of academic content" (67.3 percent), indicating that the application of learning to complex systems deepened students' understanding. The question regarding "improved your ability to listen to others" received the third highest positive score (66.5 percent), supporting our efforts to have students integrate and consider a range of perspectives.

In contrast, some questions yield a wider range of responses, for instance "deepened your understanding of others who are not like you" (45.7 percent). However, this is just one of three measures regarding understanding a range of perspectives (Figure 1b), and is likely the most challenging to achieve. Similarly "strengthened your analytical skills" received a score of 47.2 percent, highlighting areas to target for future project development.

Public Policy Examples

Students in the capstone have collaborated with a range of community partners and focused on a multitude of environmental challenges since the capstone's inception in 1988 (Middlebury College 2015b). Since 2009, projects have been conducted in partnership with multiple Vermont state agencies (including the Agency of Natural Resources, Agency of Transportation, Department of Health, and Vermont Geological Survey); state-level non-profits focused on researching and promoting sound environmental and public-health policies; and individual legislators. Affording students this direct engagement with both policy development and implementation processes offers them a first-hand exposure to the complexities of these processes.


Two models are presented below as examples of how capstone projects have been structured, paired with samples of students' reflections on the impact of these experiences. These models represent just two of a myriad of possibilities for structuring community-connected research projects. Yet they highlight the powerful outcomes for students when you can design a project with policymakers concerning current legislative issues, and they illustrate explicitly integrating values, justice, and cultural context into the policymaking process. Projects designed with an explicit justice or cultural context are relatively recent for our program and have been arranged in response to heightened interest from students and a new faculty member. Partnering with policy-makers has been quite common for our program, with close to 70 percent of the projects in the past five years and more than 50 percent in the past 10 years following this model.

The four cases presented represent particularly successful recent seminar examples from each model category. Challenges encountered in other seminars are detailed in the "Keys to Success" section below. Presentation of each case ends with a selection of qualitative student reflections that reinforce the quantitative assessment data and also showcase additional important gains in (1) personal outcomes (e.g., personal efficacy and effective communication) essential for any professional/civic work and (2) civic-engagement outcomes, that is the desire to engage actively (personally or professionally) with social and environmental challenges after graduation. Consideration of the quantitative assessment data for these latter outcomes is outside the scope of this paper.

Model #1--Policymakers as Community Partners

Case 1A: Arsenic Testing in Private Drinking Water Wells

In fall 2010, capstone students partnered with a Vermont state senator passionate about water-quality issues, the Vermont Department of Health (VDH), and the Vermont Geological Survey (VGS). The environmental challenge at hand was a concern over high levels of naturally occurring arsenic--a known carcinogen--in private drinking water wells. The state health department had recently shared with the geological survey several test results from public and private drinking water supplies showing high concentrations of arsenic. As the VGS began mapping these data, some spatial correlations with local bedrock types began to emerge. The survey had a limited data set with which to explore this problem because except for testing for total coliform bacteria during well drilling and at property transfers, there were no state requirements to test wells for hazardous substances.

The health department did recommend that homeowners test their wells every five years for a suite of contaminants, but it was not known whether the general public knew about and/or followed those recommendations. In order to increase the spatial data set and protect the health of Vermonters (close to 50 percent of Vermonters rely on private drinking water wells), the state senator wanted the students to explore whether it would be appropriate and feasible to craft a bill to require testing of private drinking water wells and, if they agreed a legislative route was warranted, to craft a bill and offer supporting materials.

Students took an integrated approach to this issue, combining mapping, narrative development, survey work, and policy research. Their mapping of existing data provided not only a visualization of geographic areas that seemed to be "hotspots" but also starkly illustrated areas of the state where there were no data due to the paucity of testing. They incorporated a personal narrative about a family whose grandchild suffered from arsenic poisoning. They conducted regional surveys (informed by the emerging hotspots) that showed that 80 percent of those surveyed were unaware of the VDH testing recommendations and that over 50 percent had never tested their wells for anything. These diverse threads of research informed their policy recommendations and the bill they drafted with the aid of the legislator. Students testified before the relevant legislative committees and watched their bill pass both the house and the senate (with modifications), only ultimately to be vetoed by the governor. While the end result was disappointing, strong educational gains were made, and some aspects of the students' recommendations were still implemented. This capstone project was an exceptional learning opportunity in which students saw that sound research does not always directly translate to policy gains. Despite responding to budgetary constraints, taking the views of real estate lobbyists into consideration, and providing compelling data from a range of perspectives, their bill was vetoed due to the libertarian stance of the governor.

Understanding System Complexity and Political Understanding (Policy Skills Categories 2 and 3, Table 1)

One student commented, "Skills that I gained from this experience include understanding human systems, learning how to convey complex ideas in a nuanced fashion, and combining what analyses indicate as 'right' with what is palatable and feasible."

Political/Cultural Understanding (Policy Skills Category 3, Table 1)

Another student commented, "Most eye-opening to me was the realization that so much of what needs to happen in the public sector involves simply connecting the dots. There is no ivory tower of public policymakers; there are only real people with limited time and good intentions trying to make life easier and safer for Vermonters."

Students cited several personal outcomes from the project:

* "We were presented with real world challenges and we felt empowered to be part of real world solutions."

* "Presenting our research to the Senate Committee at the Vermont State House impressed upon me the potential my work had to make a difference in the health and lives of Vermont citizens."

* "My experience with the senior seminar helped me see that law is an instrument of positive change and an opportunity to contribute to a better future, and this seminar helped me get to where I am today."

Regarding their experience with civic engagement, students said:

* "Looking back on my four years at Middlebury, that seminar was the single greatest influence on my current career path."

* "My experience with the capstone seminar greatly pre pared me for my work at the intersection of science and policy."

* "After the seminar, I was inspired to continue doing science that aided public health and welfare."


For further details, see Middlebury College Office of Communications (2011) and the Middlebury College Environmental Studies 2010 Senior Seminar report (2010).

Case 1B: Radon Risk and Public Health in Vermont

A similar model project to look at another home-based carcinogen, radon, was completed during the spring 2015 semester. Students partnered with the VDH, the VGS, and the senior director of health education and public policy at the American Lung Association of the Northeast. Students combined geospatial research, cost-benefit analyses, relative-risk assessments, and community-education campaigns and narratives to contribute to early efforts to develop legislation regarding radon testing and mitigation. (Vermont is an outlier in the northeastern U.S. since it has no regulations regarding airborne radon).

Our community partners indicated that the students' work will inform policy development and that they will use the research to "educate Vermonters, including lawmakers, about the health impacts of radon and advance radon-related policies, likely for years to come." Perhaps even more importantly, our partners credit the class with fostering strong collaborative relationships across organizations, with one official noting, "We cannot achieve our mission without strong partnerships."

Political/Cultural Understanding (Policy Skills Category 3, Table 1)

Students' reflections including the following:

* "This process has helped me to understand what makes bills likely to pass. Even if you have the most sound reasoning in the world, legislation won't get passed unless everyone who it affects agrees on it. And for every piece of legislation, there are a lot of stakeholders that most people don't realize."

* "I would say that trying to write a report that comprehensively addressed radon policy in Vermont definitely deepened my understanding of the policy process and the role of various stakeholders most strongly."

* "Learning about the policy schedule as well as current priorities taught me that politics has a certain rhythm to it that must be understood to enact sound policy."

Regarding personal outcomes from the experience, one student said, "I would say that this semester has really highlighted for me the importance of soft skills--arranging in-person meetings with lawmakers and stakeholders, presenting information (whether written or oral) with a mind to how your intended audience will use that information, networking, persuasive emailing, etc. These kinds of things were just as important as the academic side of things."

As for their experience with civic engagement, some students said:

* "While I've always had the policy bug, this project definitely reinvigorated my desire to be involved in policymaking somehow--whether as a lawmaker, a researcher, or just as a member of civil society."

* "I will be doing environmental advocacy next year, so I do believe that I can engage in the policy process somehow."

For more details, see Middlebury College Office of Communications (2015) and the Middlebury College Environmental Studies 2015 Senior Seminar report (2015).

Model #2--Learning to Integrate Values, Justice, and Cultural Context into Policy Recommendations and Implementation

Case 2A: Building Climate Change Policy from the Voices of Vermonters

In fall 2013, the capstone students partnered with the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) and the Agency of Natural Resources' Climate Cabinet to help envision the next steps in building a structure and funding mechanism for Vermont's climate policy, including carbon taxation. Through earlier statewide dialogues facilitated as part of VCRD's Council on the Future of Vermont, policymakers identified a need to better understand Vermonters' values and visions for their long-term future, in order to catalyze political action regarding climate and energy policy.

The students approached this challenge by capturing personal narratives and motivations from participants in the council and related initiatives and pairing past dialogues with new interviews to better understand Vermonters' visions for energy planning. Students identified innovative approaches for engaging stakeholders, researched successful carbon pricing schemes elsewhere, and identified how to translate values and visions into policy campaigns.

Political/Cultural Understanding (Policy Skills Category 3, Table 1)

Regarding these skills, students noted:

* "I learned a lot about the current political situation in Vermont regarding climate change through discussions, readings, and interviews with and from stakeholders from across the state. I have a much better understanding of how environmental policy works and who works on it."

* "This course taught me a lot about the importance of collaboration among stakeholders and those working to better the environment."

Local Context/Values and Political/Cultural Understanding (Policy Skills Categories 3 and 4, Table 1)

Students' reflections included:

* "The course has taught me the value in learning from and listening to a diverse array of community members in order to assess how people view environmental issues and how solutions to those issues can be developed."

* "This project has given us great perspective on how to address the widespread and seemingly irreconcilable interests with regards to climate change mitigation and formulate a recommendation that addresses differing viewpoints."

* "I have gained an appreciation of the common values shared by many people in Vermont. It has shown me the value of engaging in a constructive political process with regards to complex environmental issues, and how on a small scale (being the state of Vermont) tangible change can come from this type of inclusive dialogue."

Understanding System Complexity (Policy Skills Category 2, Table 1) Said one student, "I hope I remember my simultaneous respect and criticism of existing systems when I become a part of them."

Sample student reactions regarding civic engagement included:

* "It makes me excited to take a hand in shaping the future of our community and the globe, while limiting our impacts on the natural environment."

* "I am more inspired to tackle environmental challenges where they intersect with social justice issues."

* "After gaining this knowledge, our energy future has become impossible to ignore and I would really like to pursue a career in this area."

For more details see Middlebury College Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest (2014) and the Middlebury College Environmental Studies 2013 Senior Seminar report (2013).

Case 2B: Cultures of Lead Exposure

In fall 2014, a team of capstone students worked closely with the Vermont Department of Health's Healthy Homes Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, the Burlington Lead Program, and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont. The health department needed assistance expanding and improving outreach to Vermont's growing multicultural and multilingual residents in order to meet the policy goal of universal lead screening of all children one and two years old in Vermont. At the time, most of their outreach material and efforts were in English.

The students approached this challenge by researching the best methods to collaborate with and communicate information to people with a variety of cultural backgrounds. They identified potential pathways for lead exposure among refugees (for example, exposure before they arrived in Vermont and the age of the housing available upon arrival), and how to decrease lead exposure while working within cultural norms. Based on their research, the students decided to develop an animated video on lead awareness and prevention and translated it into Nepali, Swahili, Arabic, English, and French in order to make it accessible to most of the refugee communities now living in Vermont. Students held workshops with key stakeholders to review early video drafts and presented their final products to a consortium of agencies and organizations that provide services to Vermont's refugee and immigrant communities. The director of the health department's program called the students' efforts "critical work that fills an important gap in the VDH's program."

Political/Cultural Understanding (Policy Skills Category 3, Table 1)

Regarding this area, student comments included:

* "I gained a deeper understanding that there is no 'general public.'"

* "This process made me aware of the missing people in the conversation."

* "There were opportunities in this project to speak for typically underrepresented groups, and coming to understand how these groups might be held back both legally and by the perceptions of some Vermonters was an interesting process."

Said one student regarding personal outcomes, "One of the most important things I learned was how to articulate ideas effectively for a variety of audiences."

For more details, see the Middlebury College Environmental Studies 2014 Senior Seminar report (2014).

Keys to Success

While this article details four particularly successful examples, community-connected classes are not without their challenges. These can include unmet or unclear project expectations, a desire for agenda-driven outcomes, the rhythms of the "real world" conflicting with the rhythm of a semester, and the difficulty of truly incorporating a range of disciplinary perspectives and approaches. Based on lessons learned over the history of this capstone seminar, five replicable approaches and strategies that have made it effective are detailed below. An additional note relevant to the Vermont context is the small scale of our state and the particular accessibility of our state agencies and legislators. If working at the state level is not feasible in a particular state context, one could easily devise similar projects partnering with local and regional entities.

Recommended approaches and strategies are:

1. Appropriately define and frame the project's challenge. It is crucial that projects be designed through direct collaboration between the community partner(s) and faculty members and that a reciprocal relationship is established and maintained. Project research questions should be framed in a way that invites a range of disciplinary perspectives and that allows students to offer their unique perspectives and approaches. The goal is to strike a balance between providing sufficient guidance to achieve something tangible within your timeframe, but open-ended enough to encourage student agency.

2. Develop long-term partnerships. Once a productive and successful relationship is established, be strategic about cultivating that into a long-term partnership for continuing project collaborations over time. This can include ongoing conversations about research directions and partnering in other ways (e.g., internships, student independent studies, or thesis research). Community entities can offer more to the collaborations if they have built them into their work planning.

3. Maintain high levels of communication. In addition to three face-to-face meetings with partners integrated into our 12-week syllabus, students must develop a plan for maintaining a high level of communication with their partner outside of class. Additionally, project work plans, progress reports, and drafts are reviewed by all parties.

4. Utilize expertise in the area. Make good use of all of the expertise on your campus and in your local community to engage students with a range of perspectives and approaches to their research challenge.

5. Arrange support for coordination of the project. This capstone course has direct support from a staff position that handles many of the items that are detailed in the four recommendations above, particularly fostering long-term relationships. If dedicated staff time is not feasible, plan on considerable lead time for planning. Support might be available through a state or regional Campus Compact Office.


The quantitative and qualitative assessment data discussed here provide strong support for deploying community-connected research projects in the context of integrative academic experiences, not only to support a range of student-learning outcomes, but to also strengthen a suite of skills relevant to effective policy-making. To the extent that these community-based projects can be explicitly linked to the development of new policy or the implementation of policy by state, regional, and local agencies, student capacity to be effective in these realms after graduation is heightened. Further, the purposeful integration of a range of perspectives, disciplines, and approaches further strengthens both learning gains and future civic efficacy.


The models presented in this paper represent capstone courses led by Peter Ryan, Nicholas Muller, Mez Baker-Medard, and Catharine Ashcraft. The author thanks Jeffrey Munroe for assistance with the figures and Molly Costanza-Robinson for manuscript review.


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Diane Munroe

Middlebury College,

Diane Munroe is the coordinator for community-based environmental studies at Middlebury College, where she develops and provides logistical support for community-connected courses within the Environmental Studies Program. Paired with her previous work as an educator with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, she has extensive experience with campus-community collaborations.

doi: 10.18833/curq/36/3/2
Table 1. Learning Outcomes Assessed at Completion of Capstone Seminar *

Eyler et                                                 Policy
al. 2001                                                 Skills
Categories    Assessed Learning Outcomes                 Categories **

Learning      Improved your ability to integrate and     1
              apply your knowledge
              Deepened your understanding of academic    2
              Strengthened your analytical skills        2
              Deepened your understanding of others      3,4
              who are not like you
              Improved your ability to consider          3,4
              others' perspectives
              Enhanced your understanding of state or    3,4
              local issues
              Enhanced your understanding of social      3,4
Social        Improved your ability to listen to         3,4
              Increased your interaction with the        3,4
              local community
              Increased your interaction with faculty    --
              Improved your ability to work as part of   --
              a team
              Increased your commitment to addressing    --
              community problems
              Enhanced the likelihood that you will      --
              participate in civic activities (e.g.,
Personal      Improved your leadership skills            --
              Improved your writing skills               --
              Improved your research skills              --
              Improved your conflict resolution skills   --
              Improved your project management skills    --
              Improved your understanding of             --
              professional work in the environmental
              Clarified your career path                 --
              Helped clarify your values                 --

* Outcomes grouped by the personal, social, and learning outcomes
defined by Eyler et al. (2001) and correlated to the categories of
policy-relevant skill sets. Assessment questions modified from
Lichtenstein et al. 2011.

** 1 = the ability to integrate knowledge from across a range of
disciplines; 2 = the ability to address and even anticipate social and
systems complexity; 3 = historical, cultural and political
understanding; 4 = appreciating the extent to which personal values
and local context influence the way people behave and review and
evaluate information.
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Title Annotation:Focus
Author:Munroe, Diane
Publication:Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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