Surrounded by wheat, corn and sugar beet fields, an appreciation for growth and renewal is rooted in the Fargo-Moorhead community.
Evidence of that natural growth can be found even in our classrooms. Like other liberal arts institutions across the country, Concordia asks: how do we grow to serve the needs of new learners while maintaining the values at the core of our mission? How do we show students their education prepares them well for work and life?
Institutions of higher education are now turning to integrated learning, a practice that blends in-class instruction with hands-on experience. These experiences soon will become part of every Concordia student’s education. Although the formality is new, integrative learning has long been a part of many Concordia courses.
A Hands-On Approach
“I’m so tired of learning about all the problems!”
That cry from a distressed student struck a chord with Dr. Gretchen Harvey, assistant professor of history. In 2011, she developed a course that focused on finding solutions. It became an interdisciplinary capstone titled “Building Sustainable Communities: Food, Hunger and Climate Change.”
In some ways, the class operates as a nonprofit where students work on committees, take minutes and meet twice weekly. It’s an example of how the integrated learning that will be a foundational part of Concordia’s future already has roots in the college’s liberal arts tradition.
And while there are traditional aspects to the course, students are challenged to apply theory. Part of the course is to educate the community on sustainable growing practices, plant and raise seedlings in the college’s organic garden, and sell those seedlings at a farmers market.
It’s a dynamic formula and one that doesn’t always guarantee success. After a new expansion to the organic garden was completed in the fall, Harvey’s students brought fewer seedlings to market than before as they learned to adapt their growing methods to the environment inside a high tunnel.
That freedom to fail has the potential to bring about more powerful learning than success, Harvey says. “I could have them sit in the classroom and talk about organic food until the cows come home, but they’re out there actually trying things,” she says.
Beginning in 2017, first-year students will be required to complete two college-approved integrative learning experiences before graduation. These are known as PEAKs (Pivotal Experience in Applied Knowledge) and may be integrated into program-specific or interdisciplinary courses or they may be designed like an independent study.
PEAK represents an effort to broaden and deepen Concordia’s existing commitment to preparing students to become responsibly engaged in the world. Students agree these experiences lead to broader, more practical learning.
Biology major Tanner Knutson ’16 was in charge of managing the subcommittee responsible for taking care of the seedlings grown in Harvey’s course. Farming isn’t a professional aspiration, but he values the experience he gained in the class.
“I’m not going to be a farmer. I’m going into physical therapy,” Knutson says. “But we had autonomy to do what we wanted with this project. It was total collaboration with our peers working toward a specific goal that really emulates what we’re going to be doing after college.”
And while Harvey’s course offers a look at how PEAK might shape the classroom, other students pursue different experiences that could easily fulfill the same requirement.
For Hanna Wallmow ’16, an internship at Clay County Solid Waste provided the perfect opportunity to put into practice the skills she has developed at Concordia and to develop new skills more closely related to the job market.
Wallmow, a political science and global studies double major, spent the semester tackling a very practical issue: how to get rid of plastic shopping bags. By researching how bags end up in landfills and gathering information on consumer habits, she developed a formal presentation that she delivered to the countyʼs Solid Waste Advisory Board.
“Being in the classroom and having discussion, that’s important,” she says. “But then getting outside your comfort zone and being hands on and engaged in what you’re doing, that’s really the next step.”
Getting outside your comfort zone and being hands on and engaged in what you’re doing, that’s really the next step. – Hanna Wallmow '16
Going forward, engaging experiences like the ones that impacted Knutson and Wallmow will be a part of the curriculum for all students. It’s a shift in focus but also a natural evolution.
Originally published in the Spring 2016 Concordia Magazine
Eric Lillehaugen '11 is a content specialist and CMS administrator for Concordia College.