Thursday, March 1, 2018

Come On In: Fostering High-Impact Opportunities and Engagement in UAA's Multicultural Center

Dr. Andre Thorne, Director of UAA's Multicultural Center

You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard or thought at length about the effects of High Impact Practices (HIPs) on your academic pursuit. After all, overhearing someone in a university setting refer to “hips” wouldn’t exactly sound like a conversation about education or academics in the first place.

As defined by Hahn and Hatcher (2015), however, HIPs reflect “active and intensive learning experiences that have the potential to promote substantial learning opportunities for college students." According to their research, experiences signifying as “substantial learning opportunities” include, among others, diversity and global learning, capstone courses, service learning and community-based learning, and undergraduate research.

            And while these opportunities might prove obvious pursuits or par for the course for some overly-driven or specifically-advantaged students pursuing an undergraduate pursuit, HIPs are not nearly as utilized or sought out by students who reportedly stand to most benefit from them.
Dr. Andre Thorne, the director of UAA’s Multicultural Center, could not have been introduced to this burgeoning approach in education at a better time. On one hand, as a field increasingly backed by significant data and research and now referred to as “a core strategy” for reaching desired teaching outcomes in liberal education, it would seem the case for HIPs proves obvious enough to warrant strong consideration among educators.

However, in Dr. Thorne’s work, and given the focus of his energies in the MCC, HIPs also boast significant gains for the students frequenting the center, as well as those he teaches in his Guidance courses.

“The research shows that traditionally underserved students – these are the students of color, students from other countries – essentially the students we serve in the MCC,” he describes, “they report the greatest benefits of high-impact practices and course work. But the research also shows that these populations utilize HIPs and service-learning opportunities much less than traditionally-advantaged students.”

Dr. Thorne understands why this often proves the case for students attending UAA – and especially those who make use of the MCC – the majority of whom are commuting to school from a diverse array of circumstances and family situations that students living, for example, in a traditional dormitory setting at a four-year university may never encounter or need to consider as they work towards their education and career goals.  

“At UAA, we have to do things very differently in order get students to hang around campus,” he acknowledges. “A typical student at UAA pulls up to campus in a car and hangs out in there and looks at the phone or textbooks till it’s time to go to class. When class is over, that student packs it up and drives home or heads to work.”

“If the challenge for us at UAA is to engage students at this level, we’ve got to learn to do things very differently if we’re going to help them become active and excited about learning opportunities we’re striving to provide for them here.”

He pauses.

“We almost have to grab them,” he laughs, “grab them and tell them, ‘Get out of your car! Come in here! Grab some snacks and get some food and let’s learn something while you’re here.”

And so, the MCC works hard to welcome and accommodate those accessing the center, providing them with all the amenities a student could need in order to be convinced to stick around, to linger for a little bit. Individuals utilizing the MCC’s space find they can work on papers or other school work in the center’s computer lab. The student who needs a pick-me-up can swing in and grab a snack or cup of coffee. Or, they can sit quietly at a table and attend to assignments as necessary, or just sit still and catch a breather from the unending, bustling goings on in the life of a commuting undergraduate student.

Dr. Thorne is quick to note, however, that stimulating students’ interest in community-based learning opportunities or community-engaged course work takes a lot more than a basket of granola bars or free coffee. It’s not as if once you’ve lured students to linger around campus with snacks and a work space, you’ve inevitably fostered new, previously unforeseen opportunities for deep-learning.

“Nothing – nothing – happens to propel our multicultural students forward if we don’t foster relationships with them,” he urges, “and that always requires that we build trust with the students who find their way to us.”

This can prove a challenge, he shares, describing that the typical student passing through the MCC is often already often juggling a couple classes and working one or maybe two jobs. Dr. Thorne credits the MCC center’s staff for the ways they manage to connect with their students and to present opportunities that otherwise might elude them.

“There’s a vital learning component that takes place, for example,” he reflects, “once you ask students to reflect on their experiences – to tell us their stories.” Once the personal connection is made between a student’s lived experiences and what they hope to accomplish by attending the university, Dr. Thorne and his staff find that the window to offer MCC students possibilities and directions they haven’t previously considered or heard about widens considerably.
An MCC student making a presentation with her E-Portfolio

“When I started in this position in 2011,” he recalls, “I was surprised by the number of students of color who had never been outside of Anchorage. Even if they had grown up in Alaska or moved here at a young age, in many cases they’d never pushed past the city limits.”

This recognition – and, more recently, all he’s learned from HIPs research - compelled Dr. Thorne and his staff to find opportunities for MCC students to “get out of Anchorage and into Alaska.”

“Most recently, we’ve established partnerships with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, as well as the Student Conservation Association, and more." These organizations and offices will come in and tell us about internships and summer job opportunities with the students that many of them never knew were open to them or even on the table for consideration. 

As opportunities in service learning and community-engagement go, you perhaps can’t find a more engaging form of high impact practice than offering a student who’s never seen Alaska outside of Anchorage an opportunity to step into work experiences they’d otherwise never imagined possible.

“You drive five minutes outside of Anchorage and you begin to have a very different experience and understanding of Alaska,” Dr. Thorne offers, continuing, “And when they come back sharing the artifacts from their work experience or internships with our partners in their e-portfolios – pictures of eagles, moose, and salmon and all their stories – you become aware that these students are sharing and engaging in opportunities they never would have experienced if these weren’t made available to them.

  And given the life-changing opportunities that may await them, Dr. Thorne and his staff can't imagine a more compelling reason to continue encouraging students to walk the short distance from the UAA parking lot and through the doors of the MCC to pay them a visit.

MCC students working on their E-Portfolios

Hahn, T.W., & Hatcher, J.A. (2015). The relationship between enrollment in service-learning courses and deep approaches to learning: A campus study. PRISM: A Journal of Regional Engagement, 4(2), 55-70.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Congratulations to Our 2018 Dr. Alex Hills Grant Award Winners!
The 2018 Dr. Alex Hills Engineering and Civic Engagement Award

A couple days ahead of submitting his application for the 2018 Dr. Alex Hills Engineering and Civic Engagement Award, UAA Engineering student, Canyon Lewis, had a conversation with his uncle, a mechanical engineering graduate of MIT. They were discussing Canyon’s proposal for an Autonomous Aeroponic Garden and how this farming method could serve to address agriculture and food sourcing issues throughout Alaska in the 21st century. His uncle had a lot of faith in the project’s potential. However, while Canyon – thanks to his training and education – could capably manage the electronics and modular-unit materials the endeavor would require, his uncle suggested the project would have the best chance of success if he partnered with a Biology major who better understood the food-production and farming side of things.
                So, when Canyon met Claire Lubke – a UAA student majoring in Biology and minoring in Engineering – a couple hours after submitting his grant proposal to the CCEL, it could not have seemed more fortuitous.
Canyon's proposed schematic for the final aeroponic system
                “UAA’s Society of Women Engineers organization (SWE) were having their annual meeting the same day I submitted my proposal. In fact, I ran to the SWE meeting from a meeting with Seeds of Change, who were supportive of my idea for the project and wrote a reference for me.”
                Canyon didn’t recognize many in attendance that afternoon, but sat down close to a friend and started making small talk with Claire, who was also seated nearby.
                “I just started talking with her because the room was filling up so quickly and I was becoming uncomfortable,” Canyon recalls, laughing, “I asked her questions about herself. She told me she was a biology major with a minor in engineering and with an interest in undergraduate research. Once she shared that, I couldn’t talk fast enough about the proposal I’d just submitted to the CCEL.”
                The rest, Canyon jokes, “is recent history.”
                For Lubke, the opportunity to collaborate with Canyon felt mutually serendipitous.
“I’ve had my eye on this grant for a few years now,” she shares, “chiefly because I’m interested in engineering as a tool for social justice and there seems a lot of potential for doing good work with this award.”
                She acknowledges that as a functional or practical career option, engineering isn’t frequently perceived or touted as a force for activism or social change.
                “I think a lot of people get into engineering without always considering the discipline’s larger implications. On one hand, it’s a reliable job or career choice. However, engineers are also responsible for designing the spaces we live in and use, and so it’s impossible to ignore the influence their work has on our lives.”
                Claire cites, for example, the work of the College of Engineering’s Dr. Dotson - an engineer on the forefront of advancing social justice by serving a critical need for rural Alaskans.
                “Dr. Dotson’s worked to design an in-home water re-use system for families in rural Alaska in an effort to help bring water to communities who don’t otherwise meet World Health Organization standards for water accessibility.” While not often an issue that receives a lot of media attention, it’s hard to think of a more pressing or community-minded use of one’s skills than insuring citizens have access to fresh water.
            “A lot of people often express they’re eager for social change – and oftentimes there’s even money and other resources on hand to fund different projects or ideas,” Claire acknowledges, “but working to address or effect change at the infrastructure and design level of things requires a degree of critical expertise.”
                To this end, Canyon and Claire’s collaboration proves ripe with possibility for Alaska and its food sourcing.
Early stages: Canyon & Claire's project beginning to take shape

                Lewis, who grew up on a farm in Northern California, has had his eye on aeroponic farming research for a while now and notes the ways it could positively impact the challenges Alaskans face in terms of food production.     
                “Aeroponics,” Lewis writes, "supplies nutrients directly to the bare root system [of a plant] through a water mist.” This process allows plants to receive an adequate supply of oxygen and water, both of which often limit growth factors with other, more conventional soil and water systems.
                As a means of growing produce, research shows that aeroponics systems "provide the ultimate environment for the health and growth development of plants." 
Canyon cites a NASA study, for example – conducted on space shuttle Mir – that “concluded aeroponic systems perform better than dirt-grown” produce. Considering Alaska’s mostly “unfavorable” soil conditions, which Lewis describes as mostly loamy, sandy, and acidic, a “dirt/soil-less” means of providing healthy foods to Alaskans seems nearly too good to be true. Among other sustainable characteristics, aeroponic systems have been shown to produced 80% more biomass weight (fruits and veggies) per square meter, while consuming 98% less water than most conventional farming methods, and reduced fertilizer use by 60%.
                In other words, as Canyon and Claire explain for the average, science-challenged layperson, aeroponics might prove a sustainable means to grow more produce in Alaska, as well as varieties of food that otherwise can seem outside the realm of reason in the northern climes.
                 “While Alaska has seen a nearly 700% increase in its population over the last seventy years,” Canyon explains, “only about 5% of the foods we consume actually comes from inside Alaska.”
                The vast majority of produce in Alaska markets, as many of us are already aware, is outsourced, arriving to us on barges. Importing these foods from out of state leads, first, to the inflated market price many of us can’t help noticing during a trip to the grocery store. And then there are other costs as well, such as damage to products during import and the loss of nutritional value and flavor over the course of transportation delays and shipping methods.
Vertical Hydroponic Gardening at Seeds of Change in Anchorage

                While they can’t predict, of course, how successful their aeroponics project will be, now that the award has been secured, Claire and Canyon hope to have one or two growing cycles completed before the end of the semester.
                “The growing system,” Canyon writes, “[combats] the short growing season attributed to the northern climes by bringing the plants indoors, and eliminating the need for arable land.” So, once the parts have arrived and are assembled, they expect to start growing leafy greens and other low-impact vegetables immediately.
                What it could mean for stimulating Alaska’s future agricultural production remains to be seen, too, but both Claire and Canyon couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity to discover where their projects leads them.