College and university administrators and communities often understand the mission of higher education differently. These differences can inform the ways that colleges and communities enter into partnerships, as well as the perceived benefits and challenges of those partnerships. Dr. Patricia Waters, an assistant professor in education at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, has researched community-based learning partnerships and explored them as a vehicle for the “public good” mission of higher education. Among her findings, her work points to the importance of stakeholder participation early in the partnership building process.
“When you factor in teaching colleges and land grant institutions,” the new assistant professor points out, “there is actually a long and strong tradition of engagement between colleges and their communities.”
Waters’ research helps clarify the nature of this evolving relationship and what best practices might look like.
Founded as a teacher college in 1912 by the Sisters of Mercy, SJC’s commitment to community is based in both mission and a century-long tradition–from teaching to nursing to social justice issues.
Waters points to this tradition as bringing her to the College. She said, “I would not have chosen to leave my family in New York, relocate my life, and come here if there wasn’t something about Saint Joseph’s that resonated with my own work. Part of what I like about the education department at SJC is that we offer teaching experiences beginning as early as a student’s freshman year to get them out into the community. That is an obvious educational pathway offered to students.”
Waters has spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of the relationship between higher education institutions and surrounding communities.
“For four years as an undergraduate student, I worked with preschoolers developing literacy skills. It was very immersive. My undergrad summer internship was also influential. I coordinated the university’s annual day of service for incoming freshmen. These two opportunities developed my passion for teaching students and for generating educational experiences outside the classroom.”
Although Waters started her career teaching secondary science, she transitioned into higher education when a position coordinating community service programs opened up at her alma mater. Collectively, all of this culminated in a doctoral dissertation focused on higher education models of community engagement.
Waters has brought her experience and scholarship in community engagement to SJC’s education department and is building on the foundation established by Professor Janice Rey.
“Professor Janice Rey accomplished great work in setting up partnerships with schools, especially with Riverton Elementary School.”
This partnership has a long history, one that provides SJC students in the elementary education program with the opportunity to develop and deliver curriculum. Education students are participating in the campus-wide Pollinator Garden Project.
With support from a Maine Campus Compact grant, the project has purchased elementary school curriculum about pollinators. “Our students used that curriculum as a jumping off point. It provided them with baseline information that they could then shape into what they were most interested in. Working in groups, each group was responsible for developing one lesson plan and had to teach that lesson to one of six classes at Riverton Elementary. This was designed as a learning and growing experience for our students, both in becoming familiar with the science content and developing science teaching skills.”
Patricia Waters inspects seedlings in greenhouse with an education major Photo: Matthew Congdon
“They had to discover what worked and what didn’t. More so than getting the lesson right the first time, they needed to critically reflect and realize what went wrong. Many of their lessons included lots and lots (and lots!) of materials. When those materials were put on the table with kids, it influenced the elementary students’ engagement. That discovery will help them achieve one of the most important outcomes of this course: they discovered the impact of distraction. A lot of elementary teachers are most nervous about teaching science content. We help them realize that they need to manage student behaviors in order to effectively deliver science content.”
“This type of community engagement has everything to do with why I’m called to teach. Community engagement shapes a career pathway and it shapes you as a person. It’s not just about academic and career preparation, but also about producing citizens that go out and make a positive impact on the community.”
Waters point toward the increasing popularity of community-based learning among higher education institutions and the need to look critically at the nature of their working relationship with community. “There’s a nuance in the differences between programs,” she said.
“Ideally,” she said, “colleges should be checking in with community partners to be sure that the partnership is mutual. Some of my research findings highlight that as higher education institutions we need not only to act in our students’ interest, but if we’re partnering with the community then they need to become a mutual partner in informing those decisions. Partners want to be seen as integral figures in students’ development. They want to share their expertise. They want to feel relevant. They want to make a meaningful contribution.”
“My research wanted to uncover whether institutions were having the impact they intended on their communities. Instead, I ended up asking, are community partners having the impact on students–the social and emotional aspects of student development– that they want to?”
Dr. Waters points to a needs assessment–a strength-based approach to partnership–and clear expectations throughout the process as essential ingredients in a successful college-community partnership.
“My preference is to start partnerships with informal meetings around the question: ‘what are the strengths?’ Then, to keep communication and trust strong, there need to be regular check-ins to make sure the partnership is working for all.”
And if a college wants to grow its community-based learning, Dr. Waters found there are some strategies to help break through silos and generate bottom up support. “The most obvious way of encouraging faculty to engage with community service is to make that part of the rank and tenure process. How do we get more faculty to see this work as valuable? I think the answer is curricular connectedness. The more we can help others realize that community engagement furthers students’ academic growth, the better. Ideally, it’s everybody’s job.”
Dr. Waters’ elementary education students took full advantage of the Saint Joseph’s College tradition of engaging with community and enjoying a richer curricular experience for themselves in doing so. They brought their lessons plans into the Riverton Elementary School, practiced delivering the content about pollinators, and then hosted the elementary students on campus so they could help plant the pollinator garden during the College’s annual Sustainability Festival.