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UMD Grant Initiative Bolsters Scholars Curricula With Additional Experiential Learning

Hands-on, active learning has always been a hallmark of College Park Scholars. Thanks to new grants from the University of Maryland (UMD), some Scholars programs will expand upon those traditions with more resources and support.

The grants come from UMD’s campuswide Teaching and Learning Innovation Grants initiative, which is providing significant funds—up to tens of thousands of dollars in some cases—for innovative educational projects that focus on active and experiential learning.

Across campus, 50 projects will bring students out of the classroom, helping them apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios, said Jennifer King Rice, senior vice president and provost; 46 will instill more active learning into General Education courses.

Within Scholars, these grants have the potential to impact students across all 12 programs:

  • New intergroup dialogue courses will allow Scholars students to learn about and facilitate discussions around power and identity within their prospective career paths.
  • Three Scholars programs that received individual grants through the initiative— Environment, Technology and Economy; Media, Self and Society; and Public Leadership—will restructure their curricula to expand the scope and impact of their work. 
  • The International Studies, Global Public Health, and Justice and Legal Thought Scholars programs will be collaborating with UMD’s Office of International Affairs (OIA) to incorporate project-based lessons about grand challenges from a global perspective into their courses.

Piloting new dialogue opportunities

As part of a grant awarded to the Office of Undergraduate Studies, the parent unit of Scholars, students in Scholars and two other living–learning programs—the Honors College and Carillon Communities—will enjoy increased access to intergroup dialogue experiences. 

Currently on campus, students can partake in identity-based dialogues with their peers through the Words of Engagement: Intergroup Dialogue Program (WEIDP), run by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The “Integrating Intergroup Dialogue into Campus Living–Learning Programs” project will use grant money to pilot new WEIDP courses in the spring for Scholars, Honors and Carillon students. 

“The university just passed updates to the diversity requirements for General Education. It’s a very ambitious plan that will need to engage students early and throughout their time on campus,” said Ben Parks, associate director for student affairs in Scholars. “Living–learning programs offer a great connection to first- and second-year students.”

These new changes to the diversity Gen Ed requirement call for students to engage in more active learning around diversity issues, and the new project proposes a way to achieve that.

In one course, students will spend the first half of their semester training to be peer dialogue facilitators. They will learn how to hold space for their peers to explore and discuss potentially sensitive issues around power, inclusion and exclusion, and ensure these discussions are a safe space to share experiences. (Scholars helped pilot a similar course this past spring.) In the latter half of the semester, the students will lead dialogues for a second set of courses, also to be offered to Scholars, Honors and Carillon students.

The second set of courses will be 1-credit, seven-week intergroup dialogue classes that take place in or near students’ residence halls. 

Unlike existing dialogue classes at the university, which group students based on their social identities, these courses will be organized by specific disciplines. Students may explore their identities and experiences within their field and learn how to ask about others’ experiences. They can then begin to understand the ways in which their identities impact their perspectives and interactions in their classes and how issues around diversity and identity may play out in their future careers. Initial dialogues under this model will likely focus on the life sciences, computer science and business.

Encouraging active conversations about diversity, sustainability 

While Scholars looks to implement new facilitated dialogues more broadly, Environment, Technology and Economy (ETE) Scholars is working to provide similar, more program-specific opportunities.

Since 2017, two of ETE’s primary goals have been to improve teaching related to diversity and inclusion while encouraging student conversations about those issues. Tim Knight, director of ETE, said the program has met the former goal. For example, students explore how redlining processes leave economically disadvantaged communities—often Black communities—more susceptible to the effects of climate change.

But the program has more work to do on the latter goal, Knight said. Last year, ETE Scholars introduced dialogue into their curriculum by collaborating with the Common Ground Multicultural Dialogue program. The dialogues were only introduced in the second-semester course for freshmen, however. With additional funds coming in from the grant, ETE will bring lessons in collaboration with WEIDP, the previously mentioned dialogue program, into the first course its freshmen take as Scholars.

By introducing dialogue experiences into the first-semester freshman curriculum—and further continuing that training into their sophomore year—Knight aims to build learning in equity, social justice and identity across the entirety of the ETE experience. This, he said, will align ETE Scholars’ values with UMD’s newly changed diversity Gen Ed requirements.

Above all, Knight anticipates students will be able to turn their understanding into action.

“It is our sincere hope that these changes will help to equip ETE students to face our increasingly challenging national and global climate and empower them to make positive change,” Knight said.

Educating the community in media literacy

In their second year, Media, Self and Society Scholars take the 3-credit CPMS225 course—an opportunity to engage in conversations about current events, media trends and more. But what this course often lacks, said Media Scholars Director Alison Burns, is the ability to bring students’ knowledge and conversations into a service-learning space. 

With its new grant, Media Scholars is collaborating with UMD Libraries to develop 12 interactive, three-dimensional, portable dioramas as part of a media literacy exhibit. This exhibit can then be taken around to middle schools, high schools and other community outlets in Prince George’s County to educate audiences on navigating the digital world. 

Middle and high school students especially love to interact with college students, Burns said. Through this project, Scholars students can convey important lessons on finding reliable and accurate information online, dealing with cyberbullying, avoiding filter bubbles and deciphering disinformation.

“It’s important for young people to be savvy about the impact of the omnipresent nature of media in their lives,” Burns added. “Our Media Scholars want to help empower other young people to wisely manage how they use and enjoy media.”

Burns suggested this model of presentation—eight-foot tall, three-sided, colorful pop up exhibit towers—may be adapted to other Scholars programs, as media literacy is only one topic that could be covered in this manner. Topics could expand to issues of relationships, health, finances, politics and the environment.

Learning how to give back

Over the past four years, the Public Leadership (PL) Scholars program has updated each of its required courses to include more experiential learning opportunities and skills development—except for the foundational course, CPPL100, the first one students take as PL Scholars.

To remedy that, PL is using its grant funds to work closely with Evolving Minds, a local mental health nonprofit run by Scholars alumni. Specifically, Evolving Minds is teaching PL freshmen resilience skills for mental health—coping strategies, activities to improve mental fortitude and more—this semester. Through these lessons, students will begin to develop a stronger sense of community, empathy and belonging. This will better prepare them for the rest of their time in the program, said PL Assistant Director Kelly Brower.

For example, students will work in teams in the spring to award grant money to nonprofit organizations working on issues such as homelessness, food insecurity and education disparities in the community.

“We want to make sure that students have the appropriate skills and background needed to engage with these topics and nonprofits respectfully and knowledgeably,” Brower said. And if all goes well, she said, aspects of the Evolving Minds curriculum could be implemented into the curricula of other Scholars programs.

Incorporating lessons on global justice

Challenges like food insecurity, climate change, infectious diseases and authoritarianism affect everyone, but these challenges are especially detrimental for underserved, marginalized communities, noted Ross Lewin, associate vice president for the Office of International Affairs (OIA).

OIA has proposed an agenda for global learning wherein “students learn about global injustice in the world, gain perspectives directly from people who have fallen victim to this injustice and finally engage in real-world projects to help combat this injustice,” Lewin said.

Over the next three years, the office plans to incorporate global learning strategies into curricula at every college and school at UMD. That effort will start in part with College Park Scholars.

This semester, Scholars’ International Studies (IS), Global Public Health, and Justice and Legal Thought programs—among other units on campus—are working with OIA to investigate how they can incorporate these strategies into their curricula. They’re building on expertise gained through the Global Classrooms initiative, which since 2014 has been offering project-based virtual courses in collaboration with partner universities abroad. 

Through a series of design sprints, collaborations with internal and external experts, and more, the grant partners will develop learning modules for project-based global learning. These learning modules are expected to be implemented in spring 2023 courses.

“The IS, GPH and JLT Scholars programs all already teach about global issues and justice, so these additions will be easy to incorporate no matter what they end up being,” said Lis Maring, director for GPH.


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