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Breaking the Western Bubble

Community-engaged learning: Beyond the classroom

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Breaking the Western bubble: Start with CEL

Sitting in the stands of the Western Fair Sports Arena, Brendan Dodd perched a laptop on his knees. He was working on a presentation for the London Blizzard Sledge Hockey Club, whose team practice was being held a few feet away from him in the rink.

After talking to one of the participant’s parents, Dodd gained a deeper understanding of why his work with the London Blizzard mattered. The parent’s son was born with spina bifida, and sledge hockey, a form of ice hockey designed for individuals with physical disabilities, allowed him to participate in a sport he loved.

“Through this conversation, I really gained a good understanding of the challenges that they’ve been through, and the fact that they can participate in what is basically Canada’s national sport — it’s a great thing to see,” says Dodd. “Just talking to this guy, wow, this person’s been through a lot, and yet, this organization’s providing a terrific thing for them, just an outlet for sport.”

Dodd, a first-year Ivey HBA student, partnered with the London Blizzard as part of an Introduction to Management in Kinesiology course he was taking last year. The course is just one of many at Western to offer a CEL component as part of its curriculum. CEL, short for community-engaged learning, is a program unique to Western that involves partnering with local organizations in London and completing community-based projects.

The CEL component of a course can be mandatory or optional depending on the professor teaching the course, and the projects tie into course content. The projects completed by the students depend on both the CEL course being taken and the community partner they are working with. Some CEL courses being offered this year include Biology 4410F: Restoration Ecology, Political Science 3201G: International Law, Psychology 3317E: Community Psychology, and English 3777: Canadian Literature, Creativity, and the Local.

Connecting course concepts

Samantha Wiendels, a fourth-year psychology student who also took a CEL course, worked with the Salvation Army Centre of Hope in the withdrawal management centre for an addictions theory and research course. She and a partner produced a literature review on supportive housing models and a research paper from interviews and focus groups they held with clients.

Wiendels loved the practical experience she gained from taking the CEL course, as well as the sense of purpose that came with partnering with a community organization.

“I wanted the opportunity to do more than read a textbook and actually get hands-on experience, and do something that’s going to go somewhere productive,” she says.

Being in the social science faculty, Wiendels describes the discipline as having a lot of heavy reading and theories. For her, being able to put those into practice with her work at the withdrawal centre was one of the best parts of CEL. She was able to conduct research that was more than just a paper — her work led to improvements in some of the centre’s health care programs and eligibility for certain grants.

Dodd’s kinesiology management course is geared towards sports management, an industry he was able to get a taste of through his CEL project. Using course concepts, Dodd and his group did analyses, researched sponsorships and planned events for the London Blizzard.

“Everything I learned, I applied,” he says.

Getting out of the classroom

Dr. Manina Jones, who is currently teaching Canadian Literature, Creativity, and the Local, has tried to teach outside of the classroom as much as possible. She wants her students to “break the Western bubble” and gain an appreciation of the culture and community outside the university. This term, she has held classes in the historical Eldon house, Museum London and the Museum of Ontario Archaeology. 

Through the CEL component of her course, Wiendels was able to break out of her usual classroom rut. Going off campus to apply course content is new and different, and something she thinks many students covet. The excitement she felt from going to her CEL class or meeting with her community partner was something she hadn’t felt in a long time.

Melanie Stone, the vice president of women’s sledge hockey of Canada and one of CEL’s community partners, dismisses the idea that learning can only take place on campus. She sees it as something that can happen right in the London community. For her, experiential learning is surprisingly collaborative between students and community organizations.

“There’s so much learning that happens in the community at these organizations that is invaluable to students and makes their transition from school to work life a lot easier," Stone says. "Not only are you learning here [on campus] and taking it to the community, but you’re actually learning in the community. I also think there’s an opportunity for organizations to really leverage the energy of students, to tap into the really neat experience and enthusiasm that they bring.” 

Helping out in the community

Not only was Dodd’s CEL project giving him insight into a future career and contributing to a course credit, but it was also making a difference in the community.

Dodd and his group were given a lot of freedom for their project with the London Blizzard, and were asked to come up with ways to better the organization overall. They analyzed what the club needed, and then planned how they were going to get those resources for them.

The two managers who run the London Blizzard were very impressed with their project. A lot of ideas proposed by Dodd’s group were never considered before. One of their most successful events was a bar night fundraiser for the organization. By the end of the term, Dodd and his group had raised a significant amount of money, recruited several volunteers and gained a lot of exposure for the London Blizzard.

Dr. Jones feels like students bring a fresh perspective to the community, and local organizations are very open to what their ideas have to offer.

“Those people really want them there, they’re really receptive to hearing the points of views of students, [because students] have really exciting new skills and perspectives to bring to those community groups,” she says.

Lisa Boyko, the CEL coordinator at Western, sees CEL as an opportunity for student empowerment through community engagement. By witnessing issues that London faces firsthand and by making even a small change, she believes students will feel more invested in the community. She hopes they will realize that their skills and knowledge can make a difference, and this will lead to their development as “civically-minded community leaders.”

CEL started about seven years ago with one course. Since then, it has expanded to 40, and Boyko believes that the CEL program will continue to grow.

"Students are asking for it — students want real world application, they want experience, and this is one way to get it," she says.

Despite its growth and glowing testimonials, not many Western students know about the CEL program. Dodd himself didn’t realize his management in kinesiology course had a CEL component until he saw the course outline.

Boyko is currently working towards flagging CEL courses as “CEL” in the Academic Calendar. CEL courses listed in the Academic Calendar currently aren’t specified as such.

As part of his CEL project, Dodd took on responsibilities of a sports manager, a career he aims to pursue in the future. It gave him a glimpse of what his career could potentially look like, and his partnership with the Blizzard helped him get his foot in the door. Dodd is currently still working with the Blizzard helping them conduct research.

But it’s seeing his project benefit the organization directly that would convince him to recommend a CEL course to a friend.

“You gain a different perspective on why what you’re learning actually matters," Dodd says. "My work had legitimate implications for the organization. I could see it actually making a difference.” 

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