Practicing Liberal Arts and Place: Case Studies

In this section we share case studies of projects which have been developed in a wide variety of liberal arts disciplines which intersect liberal arts and place.  In each case study the author describes the project created, its relevance to the course being taught, and a brief bibliography of appropriate theory and research which links traditional liberal arts content with the specific local issue(s).  Suggestions have been included for potential course placement for each case study and pedagogical suggestions have been included to foster students’ learning and engagement.  Most case studies include suggestions about how to involve community leaders in the design of the project.  Our hope is that these case studies will promote creativity, foster dialogue and critique, and encourage faculty at liberal arts colleges to consider the strengths, issues and needs particular to their place as they undertake their teaching and research. We welcome questions, comments and suggestions and have included contact information for the authors of each of these case studies. The case studies are presented by discipline and can be found in the following order:


Urban Altruism: Learning to Love Our Neighbor(hood)s


In the spring of 2006 I taught a senior-level seminar entitled “Seeking the Welfare of the City: Urban Altruism and Loving our Neighbor(hood)s.”  The course drew students from a range of disciplines including philosophy, sociology, international development, religion, and others. The focus of the course was to reflect on the “material conditions” of community—that is, how concrete, material aspects such as urban planning, architecture, and other physical aspects of social arrangement either contribute to or detract from “altruism” (which we defined as “other-regarding concern”).  This involved high-level theoretical considerations in philosophy and theology as well as engagements with social science literature on urban and suburban social arrangements. 

A key aspect of the course was a service-learning component which required students to do two things:

  1. to serve a community organization in the city with specific interest in fostering other-regarding concern (or “community” in the social sense); and
  2. to work as teams to create a specific proposal for a policy or initiative in the city of Grand Rapids that would contribute to community-building in our neighborhoods.

Students presented their initiatives in poster-formats.  We then worked with Rosalynn Bliss, city commissioner for the 2nd Ward, to display the posters at City Hall and thus communicate the proposals to key city leaders.


The “Urban Altruism” project is almost universally transferable, and could even be translated into “rural” versions. The key intuition of the course is to draw on classic liberal arts disciplines like philosophy, theology, and sociology to consider how and why our material surroundings (the “built environment”) shape community—in positive or negative ways. The constructive aspect of the course is to then to consider how to combat the increasing social atomism of late modern culture (the “bowling alone” phenomenon) by proposing how the material conditions might be changed to foster increased “altruism” or other-regarding concern.

Each place (neighborhood, city, even region) will have different challenges and opportunities in this respect. The “foundational” nature of the liberal arts reflection generates a kind of theoretical consideration which can then be “put to work” in different ways in different contexts. Faculty, students, and institutions can marshal different connections and kinds of social capital to produce community outcomes and garner community investment. While the unique nature of Calvin meant the institution could harness the social capital of urban congregations and non-profit agencies, other liberal arts colleges can play their strengths and work through other sorts of channels.

Pedagogical Components

The analysis and work of the course culminated in a concluding team assignment intended to bring together three things:

  1. theoretical work in the humanities (philosophy, theology);
  2. research in the social sciences (sociology, urban planning); and
  3. on-the-ground interest in the specificity of the city of Grand Rapids.

In short, the goal was to “aim” our liberal arts learning and bring it to bear upon specific challenges and issues in the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids.  The project was communicated as follows to the students:

“The goal is to explore a particular aspect of “urban altruism” relative to Grand Rapids (e.g., urban planning policies, local economics initiatives, neighborhood association planning, community church programs, the creation of “urban sanctuaries,” or innovative “everyday” practices). Your research will identify and analyze any current practices, programs, or policies that foster urban altruism, but more importantly your task will be to identify gaps that present opportunities for new initiatives.  Each group’s research, based on sound social science, will recommend a new initiative in the relevant sector that will foster urban altruism.  Research will be presented in a poster format which will be displayed in a public space in Grand Rapids (hopefully City Hall), and then posted on the course website.”

Students met in teams to identify a problem/challenge, propose a project, consider its feasibility (assuming very limited budget resources), research the issues (including attention to issues of material conditions, built-environment, community-building, etc.), and then construct a poster that would clearly specify the problem, communicate and demonstrate the viability of the constructive proposal, and convince stakeholders to marshal the resources to implement the proposal.

Community Involvement and Investment

Beyond generating concrete proposals for improving “altruism” in the community, we sought to serve and involve the community in two specific ways:

  1. We contacted one of the city commissioners and asked if we could display the poster proposals at City Hall so that city leaders could see and consider the proposals.  We were permitted to exhibit the posters in the main lobby of City Hall for two weeks, garnering significant exposure for the project.  (The exhibit also received television news coverage.)
  2. We shared the results of student research via the course website.  This included literature reviews written by students, as well as downloadable versions of the poster proposals. 

Course Placement

“Urban Altruism” was an interdisciplinary course that could easily be housed in a number of departments, including philosophy, religious studies, sociology, or art departments with architecture or pre-architecture programs.

Literature Cited

While there is not yet an existing literature on pedagogy related to this project, the following are some select resources that articulate the vision:

  • Gillian Brock, “Does obligation diminish with distance?,” Ethics, Place & Environment 8.1 (2005): 3-20.
  • Ram Cnaan, Keeping Faith in the City: How 401 Urban Religious Congregations Serve Their Neediest Neighbors (University of Pennsylvania: Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, 2000).
  • Eric Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: Christian Faith and New Urbanism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002).
  • Peter Katz, The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994).
  • Daniel Kemmis, The Good City and the Good Life: Renewing the Sense of Community (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995). 
  • Charles Korte and Nancy Kerr, “Responses to Altruistic Opportunities in Urban and Nonurban Settings,” Journal of Social Psychology 95 (1975).
  • William R. Morrish and Catherine R. Brown, Planning to Stay: Learning to See the Physical Features of Your Neighborhood (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1994).
  • Jeffrey L. Spear, Dreams of an English Eden: Ruskin and His Tradition in Social Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

Case study contact

James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith

Full profile

Education / Anthropology

Social Structures and Education as a Social Enterprise


IDIS 205 is sociology of education course designed to use sociological theory as a foundation to examine the interaction between education and the other systems and institutions (e.g. political, economic, and cultural) that shape society. Particular attention is given to the impacts of race, class, and gender on society and schooling and enabling students to see those at work in the world around them. To that end, at the heart of the course is a community based research project that provides an opportunity to examine these issues in real-life contexts, while also serving as an introduction to social science research methods. A Christian lens shapes our critical analysis of society and society’s interaction with education.

Project's Relevance to the Course

Through course materials, and particularly the research assignment, it is my desire for each student to become equipped—to identify various theoretical constructs and research methods that illuminate social structures and cultural practices; to describe the basic functions and influences of America’s major social, economic, and political institutions, including culture and socio-economic status; to summarize and analyze the causes and consequences of social injustices, along with the processes and consequences of social change and the role of education (and ourselves) as agents of change; to design a research project using qualitative and/or quantitative methods to reveal and examine these issues in a local context; and to articulate how a Christian perspective might inform a social science understanding of society and the role we might have in transforming education into a social enterprise that works for the betterment of communities and society as a whole.

Description of Project

The community based research project asks each student to start with their own lives, experiences and interests to develop a social science research question that is cross cultural (the cross cultural element does not have to be expressed in the topic, but can be meet by simply making at least one of the populations to be studied of a culture other than the student’s). Students have the option of working alone or in groups to develop that question into a research project by identifying the most appropriate methods and population for the study. These portions of the project are completed within the first four weeks of class and become integrated into the course introduction and the forming of a learning community (Palmer, 1998).

After we have had some time together as a class discussing social theory, research practice, issues of the impact a researcher has on anything they study, and the importance of building relationships as a foundation for data gathering and analysis, students then must settle on a location for their study. The requirements of the project ask them to spend at least twenty hour over the course of the semester at their research site and that before they do any data collecting they must simply spend time getting a sense of the place and people. They are free to find their own locations, but most require assistance.

An increase in the relationship I and the campus have with local community leaders would serve to strengthen the meaningfulness of the projects. As those continue to be developed, I work in collaboration with our service learning center and with relationships I have fostered in a number of local communities and organizations, to place all students in a locale specific to their question. For example, a pair of students was interested in exploring how hope is articulated by the homeless and thus sought a placement at a local homeless shelter. They volunteered over the course of the semester, working increasingly more closely with the population of the shelter. After several weeks, they felt as if they had developed enough trust and relationships to begin asking questions about hope. To their surprise a number of folks they had meet invited them to their “homes” revealing parts of the city to the students that they had never known. After the semester ended each continued to volunteer at the shelter.

Pedagogical Implications

Throughout the semester, the project becomes a touchstone to provide examples for our discussions of social issues; assists in illumining the complexity of social institutions and practices, and helps students find their own voice and place in the midst of it all. Toward the end of the semester the students read a book by Jonathon Kozol which often mirrors the experiences and questions they have faced in their own projects. That linkage serves to both assist students in articulating and finding meaning in what they are seeing and feeling, and provides a model for a life of community engagement. For our students, who are largely White and upper middle class, the community piece also enables them to see what may first appear as mere theory and distant issues as residing in their community and that their actions can bring change, change that starts with themselves (Koliba, 2000).

Literature Cited

  • Dukes, M. (2005). “Community-Based Research in the College Classroom – Promises and challenges: An Investigation of Teaching Faculty” in Humanity and Society. v. 29, n3-4, p. 228-238.
  • Koliba, C. (2000). “Moral Language and Networks of engagement: Service Learning and Civic Education” in American Behavioral Scientist. V. 43, n.5, p. 825-838.
  • Maton, K. (2000). “Making a Difference: The Social Ecology of Social Transformation” in American Journal of Community Psychology. V. 28(1), p. 25-57.
  • Ostrander, S. (2004). “Democracy, Civic Participation, and the University: A Comparative Study of Civic Engagement on Five Campuses” in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. V. 33, n.1, p. 74-93.
  • Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
  • Schaffer, M. & Peterson, S. (1998). “Service Learning as a Strategy for Teaching Undergraduate Research” in Journal of Experiential Education. V. 21, n.3, p.154-161.
Art / Sculpture



Plant! functions as a final, collaborative project for classes in the visual arts, particularly sculpture or advanced problem solving. The Plant! project is suitable for all levels of sculpture, and in the case of its implementation at Calvin College, a combination of levels (introduction, intermediate, and advanced) can all participate simultaneously. The project is only suitable for spring semester courses, as it requires outside activities and engagement. The PLANT! project develops a number of neighborhood-centric sites that become converted from unused space to urban gardens. These sites act as vehicles for the participants to better understand "place" in terms of geography, topography, history, science, the environment, emotions, and situations. By maintaining this urban or suburban garden, whether the participants chose to grow flowers, herbs, vegetables or simply their ideas, the consistency of being located within particularity, allows the participants to engage this new place in some meaningful way. The specificity of being located in this way also emphasizes the liberal arts project, by integrating disciplines, by conflating theory and practice and lifestyle, and by arranging a very healthy dialogue between the academic and the civic.

Description of Project

The format of the project is as follows: students in the class divide into groups of three each. Ideally the three members of the group live in fairly close proximity to each other, as the idea of the groups is to be neighborhood based. Groups can vary in size depending on class size, but three seems to be the ideal target. Once students have formed the groups, each group begins to explore the neighborhoods in which they reside or neighbor, in search of unused or neglected spaces. These dormant spaces will eventually be transformed into working spaces, by means of group involvement. Groups will pick their location based on some of the following considerations: visibility, accessibility, history, use, etc. Calvin students discovered a wide range of unused spaces from vacant lots to train tracks, from community centers to downtown intersections. The variance in site character contributes to the overall complexity of the project. In preparation for searching for these sites, class discussions center on psychogeography and the derive (aimless drift), experience and exploration 1.

Once locations have been chosen, each group begins to inhabit their site during class time. The activity will differ from group to group, some starting seeds, some preparing earth, some researching, some theorizing, some collecting, and always a particularly unique experience. During the Calvin College Plant! project, some groups would meet for meals or coffee during sessions, some would make acquaintances with neighbors or passers-by, and one pair began walking lines, treading the earth in service of form. A requirement was made in terms of the acquisition of materials: aside from seeds, groups could only use materials found within a two-block radius of the site. This requirement enhances site specificity and encourages involvement with neighboring businesses, residences, and institutions. This requirement also introduces alternative economies, appropriate technologies, and place based resource investigation. Groups’ work develops as gardens are cultivated, sculptures are constructed, earth is moved, collections are maintained, irrigation systems are devised, and spaces are transformed into places. As the meetings continue, the groups begin to realize their own identity, an identity formed by community, and one formed by place awareness and engagement. 

The activity of each group is documented online by means of a group blog 2. This form of documentation seems most appropriate as it can be updated in close to real time, and can allow for photography, writing, video, drawing, and contextual positioning via hyperlink. The blog format also allows for a public viewership to be part of the conversation via comments. This is really important to the spirit of the project, as the conversation is so focused in the content of the piece. Blog technology is also quite accessible to students, so it can be expected of them as a means of documenting their participation and level of engagement. As an evaluation tool, the blog becomes equivalent to the created object, the record of process, decision-making, query, and risk. The art, however, lies elsewhere, and this can be the subject of one of the many interesting discussions surrounding this project. After a number of weeks of these work sessions, the project culminates with public viewing. The gardens are on display! The public viewing can happen in a number of different ways. Van tours, bike tours, walking tours, maps, pamphlets, and catalogues are all among the possibilities. A central information station is another possibility, and this can be imagined in a traditional gallery space, alternative space, commercial or institutional space, or a public space via mobile technology.

Relevant Theory / Research

In many ways, this project breaks from the traditional, quotidian format of art making, especially for the undergraduate studio art student, and this leads student participants and viewers to investigate contemporary art theory in search of answers. Course readings are crucial to grounding this project in the world of contemporary art practice. How can making a garden be making art? How can a garden be political? How does art relate to the institution that represents it? These questions can be extremely impactful to a liberal arts student, as a means of expanding the view, of cultivating insight. This project can be contextualized in a number of ways. Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity are both excellent texts to support the execution of Plant! Bourriaud’s text identifies a current of art practice specifically interested in the dynamic between the artist and viewer, and work that brings this consideration into its own making. Interactions and relationships, connectedness and difference; these are the focus of relational aesthetics, which comes as a counterpoint to the model of an isolated studio artists, with a propensity to confuse rather than invite. Bourriaud’s series of essays could be paired with Claire Bishop’s Participation, providing a different perspective on relational art.

Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another contextualizes Plant! in a different way, by exploring the history of site-specific art works, as they relate to the institution and the community. Further, Kwon’s book calls the term “community” into question, and in dealing with audience in this way, it draws relationships to the topic of place, and place identity. Kwon’s text provides a means of talking about site and why the artist might have site concerns, and certainly why the artist might have institutional concerns as site becomes institution and becomes community. Including these readings in the syllabus makes for a base conversation to propel the work of Plant!, but these are just two of many texts that deal with issues of art and place, identity, community, process, conceptuality, trope, or science, or any number of current topics that generate the conversation. Plant! draws from a number of currents in contemporary art, but what it does best is succeed as an academic project, across levels, across disciplines, and to succeed without any resolution, that the means eclipse the ends is its best lesson. The dematerialization of the art object becomes an approachable and expansive topic. The Plant! project operates incredibly well as a transforming experience, or a shift in seeing and understanding.  Based on student feedback, it is clear that this project challenged students to think of their relationship to place, to art, and to their liberal arts education in new and exciting ways. For some of these students, this was their first experience being active in the city as citizens and as artists, for some it was their first time using public transportation, or their first time thinking about native, local agriculture, or their first time seeing a connection between the issues of sculpture and those of everyday life.

Pedagogical Suggestions to Foster Student Learning and Engagement

It is crucial to the success of Plant! that the class professor participates in the project, as one of the group members. This encourages class participation in working together towards a common goal, and allows for a greater community discovery experience. Using the neighborhood as a selector makes the prospect of including the professor a bit more unbiased. It may also be helpful to introduce another group project earlier in the semester as a means of familiarizing the students with this type of collaboration. Even if it is one or two class sessions, this will help with the group dynamic during this longer project.  The timeframe for the project could vary, but works best with 4-5 weeks. Students are expected to spend approximately 10 hours per week on site. It is important to meet also as a class frequently to plan for the final event, and to coordinate public relations. Some of this activity can happen on the blog as well. It is also quite possible to connect the work of Plant! to the interests of local community leaders. In a city dealing with displacement issues, this project might be a showcase for meaningful inhabitation. This project might also generate the interests of those working in city development arenas- public planning, architecture, etc. 

Plant! has the potential to truly engage the understanding of place and the liberal arts. It demonstrates the strong connection between visual art and the liberal arts project, to engage a diverse and complex set of issues, as a citizen directly and meaningfully inhabiting a place of particularity. Plant! reveals art’s potential to facilitate this type of engagement with creativity, vision, whimsy, curiosity, research, and hope.

Literature Cited

  • Bishop, Claire, Participation, The MIT Press, 2006
  • Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse du Reel, France,  1998.
  • DeBord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, AKPress, 2006.
  • Kwon, Miwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, The MIT Press, 2004.
  • Lippard, Lucy, The Lure Of The Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, New Press, 1998.
  • Tuan, Yi-Fu, Topophila: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values, Columbia University Press, 1990.
  1. Debord, Guy-Ernest, Theory of the Derive, Internationale Situationiste #2, 1958, Translation by Ken Knabb.

Listening to Community Voices: Documenting the past and present of a neighborhood


The leading questions explored in the class can be formulated as follows. How can a media production project motivate a dialogue between members of the same community belonging to different social strata? In what ways can we organize a production to generate more dialogue between the students and a particular community?

The process of answering these questions during CAS 222 proved relevant for the course content in several key aspects including interview techniques, location scouting, and editing. Generally the most efficient way of developing this project would have been to designate specific class members to fixed crew positions, but we soon realized that this model of organization would have limited the students’ engagement with the dynamics of the community they were intended to embrace and learn about. Therefore it was necessary to lower our quantitative expectations (i.e. number of interviews, minutes of footage) and qualitative expectations (i.e. aesthetic continuity) in order to allow the deepening of the relationship between the students and the South East Community Association.

Description of Project

CAS 222 (Calvin Media Company) is a project-oriented course that allows students to use their knowledge of video production in the development of audiovisual works for a variety of “clients” (off-campus groups).  The idea is to give students a “real-world” or “professional” experience in the video making business.  During previous semesters, CAS-222 classes were intentionally oriented towards partnerships with community organizations such as The West Michigan Environmental Action Council and the Interurban Transit Partnership: The Rapid.

In the spring term of 2007, CAS 222 dedicated it’s class project to the audiovisual documentation of a group of residents living in the south east side of Grand Rapids; they make up the South East Community Association (SECA).  The class oversaw the production of a short documentary about the hopes and struggles of this Grand Rapids community.  The course began with a meeting with Sarah Smith, a SECA representative, who shared the need the Association had for capturing their voices in a professional media.  The class responded by documenting the testimony of residents concerning the history and development of the south east community since its early years as the main African American working class area until its current status as one of the most deprived neighborhoods in our city.

We consider particularly relevant the fact that SECA is located in an area with a demographic significantly different from the average Calvin College student.  Students  benefitted from the interaction with the residents.  The work of videotaping the material documented also challenged their capacity to adapt and critically approach a social reality different from their own.  The South East neighborhood, according to the latest census, has one of the highest rates of violence, the lowest percentages of property ownership, and one of the highest rates of unemployment.  It is paradoxical that important Grand Rapids personalities, such as former president Gerald R. Ford, attended high school in this neighborhood.  To embrace these social contradictions and make a cohesive discourse that honors the residents’ voices and experiences while facing the currently harsh social reality was a challenge that will help mature not only students’ technical skills but their thinking as well. No well-rounded liberal arts education can be complete without this kind of immediate learning experience.

We agreed with SECA that students would interview half a dozen residents of the community, chosen by the association considering their particular knowledge and authority on the history and present circumstances of the neighborhood.  The unedited interviews would be given to them for their own possible future use.  From this material, students will produce a short documentary summarizing their findings.  The class was organized in a way that will allow every student to interact with the residents before, during, and after the production.  Each student was in charge of producing one interview requiring of them the arrangement of location settings and scheduling.  Each student also interviewed  his/her resident, which required closer research and interaction.  In the technical aspects, the students rotated their crew positions (cinematography, sound, and lighting).  We decided that all interviews needed to take place on location.  The residents were interviewed in their homes, front yards, during a walk through their streets, at the local churches, and in the Community Association office.

Relevant Theory / Research

The most relevant theoretical foundation for this class are Bill Nichols’ books Introduction to Documentary and Representing Reality. Before initiating production, the class discussed Nichols’ concept of “voice” within the context of the documentation of a social reality foreign to the video maker.  Since the idea for the project was started by the SECA community as a way to document audio-visually the history of the neighborhood, we decided that the safest way to approach the task was to distance ourselves from the subjects documented.  Concrete results of this decision were the elimination of a narrator or presenter for the documentary and the exclusive use of music composed and performed by SECA members in the editing of the project.  We assume that limiting the aspects in which the video makers would have creative control and develop a “voice” will benefit from the immediacy and perhaps accuracy of the process.

We assume that the main objective of the project was the actual documentation of members of the community – more than the production of a documentary.  It was SECA who decided the list of interviewees and it was the interviewees who proposed the locations and contents of each interview.  This approach distanced the contents of the class from most of the traditional works of documentary video making.  Since we assumed the nonexistence of an agenda and a script, the task of the students was solely to capture the testimony of the residents without assumptions or narrative inclinations.  The dialogue, then, between students and the community deepened in the interaction while documenting more than in the analysis or crafting of a comprehensive video piece.

This apparent anticlimactic structure (the class did not conclude with a video containing social statements or comments) has opened a new possibility in the understanding of pedagogical methods of both filmmaking and community engagement.  In the aspects of filmmaking, students have developed a greater understanding of the importance of observation and non-intrusiveness. We trusted that limiting the aspects in which the video makers would have creative control and develop a “voice” would benefit the immediacy and, perhaps, accuracy of the process. These intentions and principles can be compared with documentary modes such as Cinema Verite, and Direct Cinema (both of which Nichols refers as Observational); however, contrary to these cases the objective of this class was of service more than interpretation. Contrary to my expectations, the lack of a final conclusive video piece and the concentration in the service was particularly stimulating for the students.  Without intending to resonate with Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, the class resulted in both social interaction and video making practices paralleling some of the core dialogical principles of Freire’s ideas presented in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Pedagogical Suggestions to Foster Student Learning and Engagement

For the South East Community, interacting and opening-up to the students and their equipment was initially gratifying—most would not have the opportunity to document their own histories in a professional media.  However this benefit seems to have been surpassed later in the project by the unexpected experience of interacting for an extended period of time with sincerely interested and motivated students.  From the point of view of the class work, it’s difficult to measure the output the project brought to the community beyond the documentation service; however, after the documentation concluded, several students commented that members of the community openly expressed their gratitude for what, in their experience, was the first time an outside group has demonstrated sustained and wide interest in their social circumstances without a set agenda or rationale.

This project has opened, in both our specific community and in our media production major, a new range of possibilities for service and interaction with off-campus groups and other organizations.  This experience was also shared by a Calvin Honors English student who accompanied the crews in all the interview sessions.  She wrote her honors thesis based on these interviews and her own conversations with SECA residents. This proves that the experience of CAS 222 has the potential to expand to other disciplines of study such as, journalism, English, and history.

Literature Cited

  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1993.
  • Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  • Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Connecting Students and Neighborhood Master Planning


A recent development in urban planning in the US has been a trend to move away from the traditional “zoning” types of development.  That is, as cities have sought to revitalize themselves in order to make their downtowns and neighborhoods more attractive places to inhabit, they have sought to re-conceptualize what good planning should demand.  For decades within the US, urban planners held to a dogma that shopping/retail, offices, industry, and residences should all be strictly zoned as separate entities.  Such design patterns left urban areas in the US highly isolated and segregated.  Moreover, the distances between these entities almost universally demanded some kind of automobile transportation if an individual or family wanted to transport for one specialized zone to another.  However, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing to the present, there has been a movement populated by planners, architects, and academics called The New Urbanism 1.  The New Urbanists, ironically enough, called for a return to pre-World War II planning in the US.  Under that rubric, they advocated mixed-use (a blend of residential, business, and retail), walkable (being about to ambulate on foot to stores, work, school, etc.) neighborhoods.  In essence, New Urbanism operates as a reaction against normative growth patterns in US cities exemplified by suburban sprawl and restrictive residential enclaves.  Beyond that, New Urbanism promotes a return to citizen participation in the planning process.

Closer to home, the planning commission of the City of Grand Rapids in 2002 adopted a new master plan that demonstrated a high level of New Urbanist influences 2.  In fact, under the new master plan for the city, the word “zoning” was removed in favor of “patterning” – in effort to move away from rigidly codified planning that demanded exclusiveness and isolation for more integrated aspects of the city.  A major component of the master plan also allowed for neighborhood organizations to take the lead in thinking about potential future development of their local community.  More and more research indicates the importance residents’ empowerment in the neighborhood design process:  “The past few decades have taught us that planning without community involvement is likely to lead to plans that sit on the shelf 3.”  In essence, the Grand Rapids Master Plan incorporates this knowledge by offering neighborhood leaders and organizations a systematic protocol for future development (called Area Specific Plans).

For our purposes, these neighborhood master planning processes offer a wonderful entree for college students to think more explicitly about place and the liberal arts. As neighborhoods begin to consider how they might implement elements of the new master plan, college students could be used for a multitude of processes.  In turn, the exposure to neighborhood leadership would allow students to learn more about the city, particular neighborhoods, history, planning theory, and what it might take to craft better places for citizens to inhabit.


Borrowing heavily from the school of New Urbanism, the 2002 City of Grand Rapids Master Plan finds basis in the following themes:  great neighborhoods (the foundation of a great city), vital business districts, a strong economy, balanced transportation, a city that enriches our lives, a city in balance with nature, and partnerships.  It should be noted that master plan duly acknowledges neighborhoods first and foremost.  The master plan document goes on to affirm that neighborhoods are “the physical and social expression of community.  Every neighborhood can be a great neighborhood by building on its own assets and special character.”  The language of both New Urbanism and the City of Grand Rapids Master Plan echoes that of Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs 4.  These two urbanists advocated neighborhoods as places where design encouraged neighborly interaction – where urban communities rested on a foundation of active street life.  Moreover, the New Urbanists advocate for the return of true public spaces (parks, green spaces, squares, plazas, and playgrounds).  That is, they are increasingly distressed by the privatization of urban spaces (shopping malls and commercial parks exemplify this type of development). 

Since the seminal works of Jacobs and Mumford, other scholars have also asserted the relationship between physical characteristics and community building.  Recent research has demonstrated that residents living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods are more likely to know their neighbors, to participate politically, to trust others, and to be involved socially.  In short, a neighborhood’s physical dimension determines its “sense of community” because the public realm provides the overall framework within which the residents interact 5.  The City of Grand Rapids Master Plan is an implicit acknowledgement of the same sentiment:  that good places can foster a strong social connectivity.


In order to be integrated into the city Master Plan, Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods have to follow a protocol established within the 2002 document.  Interested neighborhoods are able to develop Area Specific Plans.  In order for the process to be successful, neighborhood leaders must secure the involvement of as many stakeholders as possible.  This demands recruitment and ability to articulate a vision of the neighborhood as a place that captures the imagination of the various stakeholders (including everyone from residents to business owners).  A first step in the process is a visioning meeting where stakeholders gather to discuss the state of their neighborhood and their dreams for making it a better place.  To facilitate this, stakeholders are guided through an assessment exercise called SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis.  In short, the stakeholders are divided into groups where on large pieces of butcher paper they make lists of the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats regarding their neighborhood.  Next, they participate in an activity called dot-voting.  Each individual is given three dot stickers for each of the four SWOT categories.  In practice, it means that every stakeholder gets three votes to choose how to use.  For instance, a person could use three of his/her votes on one issue, spread the votes evenly across three issues, or use two dots on one issue and one on another.  Through this process, stakeholders both vocalize and learn about their neighborhood.  It is a key step to better understanding the community and what design implements might make it a better place. 

Another step in the process is to again gather stakeholders to jointly work through city-provided workbooks where they gain even more knowledge about their neighborhood.  The workbook offer different rubrics for describing different neighborhoods.  Stakeholders are given the opportunity to work through the process in dialogue with each other so that they come to a consensus within the workbooks.  For instance, the Master Plan makes crucial distinctions between Turn of the Century Neighborhoods, Early 20th Century Neighborhoods, Post War Neighborhoods, and Late 20th Century Neighborhoods.  Properly identifying neighborhoods is significant in that the new Master Plan places a premium on protecting the city’s assets by assuring that any new developments in a neighborhood fit the surrounding built context.  In other words, by processing these workbooks, stakeholders begin to better understand that positive design elements that give their neighborhood its unique character.

Next stakeholders conduct a walk through the neighborhood where they assess the assets of the surrounding and how they might best expand those strengths.  At the same, they might also encounter some highly problematic design flaws that might be addressed during redevelopment planning. 

Following the walk, the neighborhood stakeholders will engage in a charrette – a period of intense design activity.  These sessions will include planners, architects, and stakeholders.  It is here that concrete plans will be drawn for the future development of the neighborhood.  Following the charrette will be a “feedback loop” where stakeholders can comment on the design as it stands.  These can include design meetings and more rounds of charrettes.  When a satisfactory design is secured, an Area Specific Plan is forwarded to the city planning office.  If all goes well, the plan will be approved by the Planning Commission and adopted as part of the Grand Rapids Master Plan.

Student Involvement

The neighborhood master planning process offers many opportunities for student involvement.  Complementarily, liberal arts students would have much to offer the design process.  Urban Sociology students at Calvin College have been intimately involved as a local neighborhood association, Fuller Area Neighbors (FAN), sought to redesign their neighborhood.  A crucial component of Area Specific Plans is the ability to demonstrate a good familiarity and understanding of the neighborhood context.  The sociology students provided invaluable assistance as neighborhood researchers.  They conducted open interviews, analyzed census tract data, implemented GIS software results, and administered surveys.  As an example of their work, they produced the following bar graph and pie chart concerning the Fuller Area:


How safe do you feel in your neighborhood?

The type of research the sociology students provided for the board of FAN proved to be very enlightening and useful.  The research allowed leaders to better understand the nature of their neighborhood and what residents desired. 

Beyond that, for Area Specific Plans to be implemented there has to be serious consideration of the economic implications for the neighborhood.  With that in mind, the same semester that the sociology students were working with FAN, a Calvin College student majoring in economics conducted a study to assess how the Area Specific Plan might affect the businesses in the neighborhood – both potential benefits and potential downsides.  A vital component of New Urbanism is the idea that neighborhoods should be mixed use places where residents could walk to businesses.  With that in mind, the student administered a survey.  A couple of questions from the survey are excerpted below:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 5, how much shopping do you do at the businesses in the neighborhood?

(1 = Most, 5 = None)

  1. Please rate the following factors on a scale of 1 to 5 according to their importance in your decision of where to shop (1 = Very important to my decision of where to shop, 5 = Not important to my decision at all).
    1. _____ Price
    2. _____ Service
    3. _____ Friendship with owners/workers
    4. _____ Integrity/honesty of company
    5. _____ Location
    6. _____ Service activity of company in neighborhood

The student’s research results indicated that very few neighborhood residents shopped locally.  It proved to be a good opportunity to impress upon business owners how New Urbanist design might be in their best economic interest.  The work conducted by these students over the course of the semester provided the residents and businesses of FAN a much richer understanding of their neighborhood and, subsequently, a better sense of how they might move forward with a redesign process.
In addition to the work previously accomplished by sociology and economic students, there remain numerous opportunities for other students to be involved in Area Specific Plans.  The following is in no way exhaustive.

Architecture students:  An important part of the neighborhood redesign process is envisioning the possibilities.  Architecture students could offer renderings of possible redesigns of the neighborhood during the charrettes.  Their drawings could be a crucial component of the Area Specific Plan.

Social Work students:  The visioning meetings with the SWOT analysis and dot voting would be practical opportunities to understand nonprofit organizations and the processes involved.  These students could be intimately involved in helping to organize, plan, and facilitate these meetings.

History students:  A major component of neighborhood redesign is authenticity.  That is, a frequently articulated goal within the City of Grand Rapids Master Plan is the value of context and compatibility.  The Master Plan states:  “The protection of historically and architecturally significant buildings is also an important part of maintaining visual character and a sense of continuity with the city’s heritage” (p. 17).  History students could be utilized to research the history of the neighborhood and present findings to stakeholders. 


Involving students in an Area Specific Plan has the potential to be a venue where engaging place has significant impact on their liberal arts education.  Beyond that, it would also afford the opportunity for students to influence significantly the future design and development of a specific place.  The process would have to include considerable discussion of a number of theories – including recent work on issues such as social capital.  In addition, it might also present opportunity to discuss the limits 6 of design when comes to creating “good places.”  Furthermore, the Area Specific Plan process would give students exposure to city employees, neighborhood leaders, members of the nonprofit sector, and business owners.  Most importantly, this milieu would be a vibrant learning environment wherein students could see both the limits and potential when theory intersects with practice.  It would be an opportunity to consider creatively the concept of place and how it might inform liberal arts education.  In the end, involving students in neighborhood master plans is replicable.  In Grand Rapids alone there are over 30 identified neighborhood associations or organizations 7.  Institutions such as Grand Valley State University, Aquinas College, and Cornerstone University are all located in areas where any number of neighborhoods eligible to submit an Area Specific Plan would be accessible to students. 

Literature Cited

  • Duany, A.; Plater-Zyberk, E.;  and Speck, J.  (2000). Suburban Nation:  The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.  New York:  North Point Press
  • English, M.R.  (1999). “A Guide for Smart Growth,” Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, 14(3), 15-36.
    Jacobs, J.  (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  New York:  Vintage Books.
  • Katz, P. (1994). The New Urbanism:  Toward an Architecture of Community.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.
  • Kunstler, J.H. (1993). The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape.   New York:  Touchstone.
  • Mumford, L. (1961).  The City in History:  Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace, & World
  • Talen, E.  (2000). “Measuring the Public Realm:  A Preliminary Assessment of the Link Between Public Space and Sense of Community,” Journal of Architecture and Planning Research, 14(4), 344-360.

Case study contact

Mark Mulder

Mark Mulder

Department Chair, Professor
Full profile

  1. Some seminal New Urbanist literature: Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.; Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. 2000. New York: North Point Press; James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. 1993. New York: Touchstone; and Peter Katz, The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community. 1994. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. “City of Grand Rapids Master Plan, 2002.” The entire document can be accessed online.
  3. Mary R. English, (1999) “A Guide for Smart Growth,” Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, 14(3), p. 36.
  4. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 1961. New York: Vintage Books and Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. 1961. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World.
  5. See especially Emily Talen, (2000) “Measuring the Public Realm: A Preliminary Assessment of the Link Between Public Space and Sense of Community,” Journal of Architecture and Planning Research, 14(4), pp. 344-360.
  6. I’m thinking specifically here of the criticism that New Urbanists are committed to a “physicalist fallacy.”
  7. This is according to the Community Research Institute at Grand Valley State University. More information can be found at

Developing World Citizens: Learning to Listen to the Voices of the Poor

Description of the Project

For the last ten years, my wife, Jo Ann Van Engen and I have led a semester program in Honduras. The program is designed to expose undergraduate students to key issues that contribute to poverty, to discuss how those might be addressed both in Honduras and around the world and to analyze what our role should be in responding to those problems.

Students spend considerable time during the semester learning about and evaluating  major development theories—those theories that attempt to explain why poverty exists and how best to combat it. Students study the theories of Modernization, Dependency, Neoliberalism, Human Rights and Geography, among others, and are asked to reflect on which makes the most sense in understanding what they see in Honduras.

Students also read selections from authors we refer to collectively as democratization theorists—David Korten, John Clark and others who posit that true development can best occur by working at the local level, strengthening local communities rather than focusing exclusively on global, macro-level growth. Wendell Berry, well-known essayist, poet and farmer, in his essay, Damage, writes of how he harmed a piece of land in his earnest attempt to improve it.

“The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine. I was careful to get expert advice. But this only exemplifies what I already knew. No expert knows everything about every place, not even everything about any place. If one’s knowledge of one’s whereabouts is insufficient, if one’s judgment is unsound, then expert advice is of little use” (Berry, 1990:5).

It would be logical to assume that simply locating our program in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, would ensure that this attention to local knowledge, to place-based learning, would naturally happen. And to be fair, we worked hard to ensure students heard from many local voices. We brought in guest speakers twice a week, took trips every other weekend, visited community projects and learned about the work of an array of organizations working for the poor. Our students responded enthusiastically and thoughtfully to the issues we brought to the table. But, increasingly we felt that the four walls of our classroom were insulating students from truly understanding the issues we discussed and their impact on people. And in exposing them to so many communities, projects and organizations in so many places, we succeeded often in giving them project overload, but didn’t help them grasp the myriad ways that complex communities and poverty interact.  

So, this past fall we redesigned the entire semester to try to incorporate more of the facets of true place-based learning in an attempt to give our students exposure to real people trying their best to work through the complex issues we discuss in the classroom.

Place-based Components

So, this past fall we redesigned the entire semester to try to incorporate more of the facets of true place-based learning in an attempt to give our students exposure to real people trying their best to work through the complex issues we discuss in the classroom.

There were three main place-based components in the semester.

  1. Nueva Suyapa, an urban community on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.
  2. Guanabano—a tiny, rural community in Eastern Honduras
  3. Cofradía—a large urban community outside San Pedro Sula, the commercial center of Honduras.

Nueva Suyapa

Nueva Suyapa is the marginal neighborhood where we and our two children live, located about 15 minutes from the university where we run our program. We had always included visits to the neighborhood as part of the students’ learning experience but they were short and intended primarily to expose students to the poverty that characterizes life for the vast majority of Hondurans.

Last semester, we decided to try place-based learning in Nueva Suyapa. We held class regularly in the neighborhood and invited numerous community leaders to talk to the class, walk with them through the community, and tell them about their lives and work. We paired students with youth from the community and they hung out with them twice a week. At the end of the semester, students chose topics they were interested in and together with their youth partners carried out research in the community. They researched the effects of micro-credit on women’s self-esteem, housing improvements, attitudes of youth about their lives and future and a comparison of health between the people of Nueva Suyapa and that of the residents of the middle class neighborhood in which they lived. As a result, by the end of the semester they saw the residents of Nueva Suyapa as real people (and in many cases as friends)—with problems and challenges but also with resources and strengths.

Here are a few of the ways students spent their time:

  • Sitting on the floor of the principal’s office at the local school as he frankly discussed the school’s role in the community
  • Squeezed  into a small room, talking to the local community board about the struggles of staying committed to their vision in the face of so many difficulties
  • Touring the local health clinic and talking with nurses about how difficult it is to treat patients who can’t afford the medicines they are prescribed
  • Spending the weekend with families helping out with housework, going to church, making tortillas, bathing with a bucket
  • Walking through the community with their youth partners as they gathered research for their projects—interviewing door-to-door, holding focus groups or  noting architectural differences in housing.


Guanabano is a small community of about 40 families in rural Honduras. It has no running water, no electricity and all of its inhabitants are farmers. In the past, we would send students to a rural village for a week in order to expose them to rural life, but although students enjoyed the experience, they usually said that they had only just started to get comfortable with their surroundings by the end of their stay. This semester we planned four stays in Guanabano, each of increasing length spread out over the semester. Students stayed in pairs with the same family each visit and during the last stay they carried out a research project in the community. Students were enthusiastic about the experience and felt that the amount of time they spent in the community allowed them to get a much better feel for the rhythms of rural life. By spending three or four weekends in a community, students began to fall into the pattern of rural life. They shared a bed with someone else or slept on mats on the floor just as their family did. They bathed outside with a small amount of water (or not at all if they were too shy), they found that not all the families were the same—some were outgoing and confident, others were shy and found it difficult to interact. Students were able to correct their romanticized view of campesinos and rural life and get a more accurate picture of its reality.


The biggest change we made was to move the whole program for three weeks to Cofradía, a poor community outside of San Pedro Sula. Our students moved in with local families and we spent most of our time out in the neighborhood talking with local leaders, priests, pastors, business people, government officials and ordinary people in the community. For every issue we raised, students were able to see its real-life application and implications in the lives of the families we met.

In Cofradía, we introduced students to issues like land tenure, religion, maquilas, banana industry, gangs, role of church and immigration. We deliberately chose issues relevant to the community—land tenure, because the community had been trying to gain titles to their land for over twenty years and were in the process of achieving that goal due to a new government initiative and the continual advocacy of a local NGO.  Maquilas and immigration since about 20% of the families have someone working in the maquilas or illegally migrated to the US. Role of the church because across poor communities in Central America, the Catholic church is losing members to the myriad of evangelical churches and the uneasy dynamic that has created is only just beginning to be addressed.

For example, when we discussed the increase of immigration by Hondurans to the US, many students went home and talked to their Honduran brothers or fathers about what it was like to make the trip and why they had returned. We visited the banana plantations, met with both Catholic and Protestant leaders and learned about issues of land tenancy from the families themselves who were excited about receiving titles finally for land they had lived on for decades.

In Cofradía, many of our students lived with or next to someone working in the maquilas (garment factories or “sweatshops.”) They’d also all heard before coming to Honduras, horror stories about the inhumane conditions in sweatshops around the world. So, they were eager to see for themselves. 

  • We spent one morning touring a maquila and talking with managers about how many jobs they were providing and the generous benefits they gave to their workers.
  • That afternoon we visited with Union reps whose attempts to organize at the maquilas were constantly thwarted by managers who fired any employee they suspected of union sympathies.  They pointedly asked students what we were going to do.
  • The next morning students listened to three residents of Cofradía who used to work in maquilas and had been mistreated.
  • That afternoon students met with two more current maquila workers who said that without their maquila jobs they would not be able to own their homes. The women said they were treated well but one of admitted she had had to send her children to live with their grandmother since she could not work and take care of them.

Pedagogical Suggestions to Foster Student Learning and Engagement

The learning that took place in Cofradía, Guanabano and Nueva Suyapa was much more engaged and lively than learning in the classroom. Students were able to make instant connections regarding the import of what they were seeing and its impact on the people they were beginning to know and this resulted in their wanting to dive deeper into issues than what previous student had. Students also were more interested in talking about their own role as 1st world citizens in the search for solutions to these problems.

We tried to foster this sense of engagement by carving out times for discussion in the evenings or upon the students’ return from community experiences. This allowed for opportunities to process what they were seeing and to learn from each other.

The research projects served to solidify students’ learning in a number of different settings. We asked each student to pick one of the topics we studied in Cofradía to research more in-depth along with others who shared their interest. We repeated that process in Nueva Suyapa. Students wrote up their findings regarding both the content surrounding each issue and their own personal response to it in a final paper as well as in oral presentations for the whole group.

Pros and Cons to Place-Based Learning


  1. Students see fewer examples of projects, fewer communities.... less variety overall
  2. The professor must be open to less structure —discussions with local community leaders don’t come in organized outlines or powerpoints.... and sometimes community leaders may come across without hope or frustrated
  3.  You’re never quite sure what you will get—e.g. Cofradía has little gang activity,  although it’s a huge problem in the area,
  4. It can be difficult to find the balance between going deep on a particular issue, and getting repetitive. Students may get bored with a topic if they feel they’ve heard too much about it.
  5. It takes time—for student and professor, this type of learning, doesn’t fit nicely into 3 hours/week—repeated visits, weekends with families,.... conflicts with jobs


  1.  Real life—students get depth and complexity, not issues put into neat packages. Place-based learning puts people and issues together—they hear and see about real lives, not lectures.
  2.  Understand the inter-relatedness of so many issues—how a single mom working in maquila is connected to teens joining gangs, for example. 
  3. All sort of unexpected lessons and opportunities—our look at education in the neighborhood, was the impetus for students organizing to help finish the roof on a school that was meeting in deplorable conditions (see picture)
  4.  Students get an understanding that learning can always be like this—taking advantage of opportunities for learning and understanding that can last a lifetime.

Involving community leaders in the process was gratifyingly successful. All the leaders we contacted were pleased to be included in our learning and many of them spent hours trying to show our students the reality of their world. They were open and patient with our students as they questioned and learned.

We contracted a local person, familiar with the community, to set up visits prior to our arrival and to set up the housing for our students. Local families were overprotective, but extremely welcoming and open with students.

Transferability / Suggestions for Potential Course Placement of a Case Study

  1. Pick issues which resonate in the local community. For example:
    • Funding of public schools
    • Gerontology and nursing homes
    • Globalization
  2. Try to get students to hear, see and experience the different sides of that local issue.
    • funding of public schools—spend time in poorest and wealthiest school in region—time with parents, students, teachers, about how they are funded.
    • gerontology and treatment in nursing homes—spend significant time in the nursing home—residents, families, employees….
    • globalization and loss of automotive jobs—spend time with unemployed workers, managers, videoconference with newly employed Mexican workers…
  3. Help students work through the complexity of issues, so they can take decide on their position and take action. For example, is the current approach to funding public schools, or treating the elderly or globalizing the auto industry healthy or not. We can then help students work through what we all (students, professors and society) can do to address those issues.

A course similar to our Semester in Honduras program could be carried out across many disciplines—Social work, Sociology, International Development. The key is to identify with students the issues they want to address and then to move into a neighborhood where they can observe these issues playing out in real life.

Most of our students will not end up living in a Third World country. But all of them will be citizens of their own communities and this experience will serve to make them more thoughtful citizens, aware of the effect their choices have on the rest of the world.

Example of Issue using Place-based Learning: Immigration Policy

Instead of discussing the issue in class and looking at the pros and cons of immigration and immigration policies and inviting one special speaker into class, do some of the following:

  • Match up students with immigrant families. Have students visit the family in their home,  go to work with them for a day and see how treated , spend a weekend with them and go to church together
  • Have them meet with workers who feel their jobs are threatened by illegal immigrants and get their perspective
  • Encourage students to take action based on what they’ve learned—letter to editor, meet with their congressperson.

Literature Cited

  • Alvarado, Elvia. (1987) Don’t be Afraid Gringo. Ed. Medea Benjamin. Institute for Food and Development Policy.
  • Berry, Wendell. (1990) What Are People For? New York: North Point Press.
  • Berry, Wendell. (1993) Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community.  New York: North Point Press.
  • Bunch, Roland. (1982) Two Ears of Corn. A guide to People-Centered Agriculture Improvement. Oklahoma City: World Neighbors.
  • Chambers, Robert. (1983) Rural Development: Putting the Last First. Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Limited.
  • Clark, John. (1991) Democratizing Development: The Role of Voluntary Organizations. West Hartford: Kumarian Press.
  • Eyler, J. and D. Giles.  (1999) Where’s the Learning in Service-learning?  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Korten, David. When Corporations Rule the World. (1995) West Hartford: Kumarian Press.
  • Orr, David W. (1994) Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment And The Human Prospect, Washington DC.: Island Press.

Case study contact

Kurt Ver Beek

Kurt Ver Beek

Full profile

Physical Education and Recreation

Using walking and biking tours to connect students to place


“The core curriculum at Calvin College is a preparation for life…the core equips students for a life of informed and effective Christian service in contemporary society at large, for an engagement with God’s world…the goal of the core curriculum at Calvin College is likewise divided into three parts:  knowledge, skills, and virtues.  The courses in the core are designed to impact a basic knowledge of God, the world, and ourselves; to develop the basic skills in oral, written, and visual communication, cultural discernment, and physical activity; and to cultivate such disposition as patience, diligence, honesty, charity, and hope that make for a life well lived” (Calvin Catalog, 2006/2007, pg 35). 

What is unique to this description of the Calvin curriculum is the emphasis placed on developing virtues, through which we feel and act in certain ways.  One of the ways to develop and practice virtues is living in community, for this requires a conscious effort on the part of the individual to actively work for the well being of the larger society in which we are placed.  As Mouw (2001) has noted our actions should manifest those subjective attitudes and dispositions – those virtues that will motivate us in our efforts to promote societal health.

Throughout history, Americans have demonstrated the ability to balance personal freedom with promoting the common good. For example, much has been written about Thomas Jefferson’s words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” which reflect this balance.  In the making of the film Thomas Jefferson, filmmaker Ken Burns interviewed historians and philosophers, asking them to explain what Jefferson meant by the words pursuit of happiness.  What he found was a profound sense that Jefferson connected both individual and societal happiness.  Writer, Timothy Ferris portrays this connection between individual and society, when he states, “it seems to me that the purpose of education is to answer the question of what the pursuit of happiness is for you. The reason we go to school ought to be not to learn some skills to get a job to make a better salary, but to find out enough of who I am so that I know how to pursue my own happiness.  And that happiness is necessarily involved with that of the wider society for reasons that Jefferson saw so clearly. If you just pursue your own happiness and you don't care about anyone else, it doesn't work. You find out that your happiness is bound up with everyone else's happiness.  It's a common endeavor…so many of Jefferson's ideas converge on the realization that, if it doesn't work out for everyone, it's not going to work out for the individual.” Philosopher, Stephen Mitchell highlights the duty of seeking the common good even more strongly when he notes, “as he meant it, I think it had nothing to do with hedonistic pleasure. It had to do with deep satisfaction—including the satisfactions of doing your duty to your country, of doing the right thing by your friends and by your enemies.”

As these quotes indicate there has been a long history of civic responsibility in the United States, where individuals have struggled to balance their individual wishes (freedom) with the responsibility they felt to contribute to the common good of society.  Over the last half of the 20th century, many feel this sense of civic responsibility has lessened and Americans have lost the desire to collectively strive for the common good as evident in the writing of Robert Putnam (2000) who describes the loss of social capital in America over the last 25 years.

Yet new emphasis has been placed on finding ways to help people re-connect across the United States.  These efforts can also be seen at Calvin, where efforts have been taken to help students build community within the college as well as help re-connect students to the surrounding communities around Calvin.  The challenge for many professors is helping students see how studying such subjects as history, philosophy, music and art can contribute to how they should live their lives on a day to day basis both now and in the future.  This case study describes several such efforts by Calvin to connect a wide range of classes to the study of urban sprawl. 


John Muir, the great American naturalist, once stated, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (Sierra Club Staff, 1992, p. 73) and so it is with current development patterns. As the 21st century unfolds, our sprawling development pattern in the United States has emerged as a major issue for our collective society.  The challenge of urban sprawl is multi-dimensional and encompasses a wide range of issues including: 

Loss of the Public Realm.  The decay or lack of attention to the public realm can be seen in a variety of ways from the loss of the front porch in neighborhoods to a lack of permanence in municipal buildings and public space.  Prior to the 1940s most houses had a front porch where people gathered and socialized with their neighbors.  However as air conditioning was created, television evolved, and backyards became more attractive, we have seen a movement from the front porch to the backyard and from public to private space (Dolan, 2002). 

Declining Tax Base (Deteriorating Cities).  Many central cities have experienced decline as the suburbs have grown rapidly.  As people and wealth leave the city, its property values decline, tax rates increase, services decline, and social problems and crime often increase.  This creates a downward spiral for urban areas and provides the model of throwaway communities.  As central cities decline can first ring suburbs be far behind? A study of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Orfield (1997) creates a time lapsed montage of communities bobbing up and down in successive waves of prosperity, decline and decay.  These waves, moving out from the city are now lapping into the suburbs.  Orfield is quick to point out that “if it can happen here, no American region is immune” and prompts the question where will it end.  As tax bases erode in inner cities, fast growing suburbs struggle to keep pace with development.  Consider that the infrastructure (sewer, water, streets, parks, fire, police, etc) to support this development becomes more and more expensive the further out it stretches.  For example, “in South Carolina, if sprawl continues unchecked, statewide infrastructure costs for the period 1995 to 2015 are projected to be more than $56 billion, or $750 per citizen every year for the next 20 years” (Edelman, Roe, & Patton, 1999, p. 6). 

Automobile Dependency. As development sprawls the amount of time people spend getting from one place to another increases.  In the United States, where mass transit is underdeveloped, a large portion of the day is spent in transit.  The amount of time Americans spend driving automobiles has increased 60 percent since 1980 (Hinds, 1999).  In addition, new developments are planned with automobiles in mind, meaning bigger parking lots, larger roads, more air pollution and the erosion of pedestrian environments.  Putnam (2000) notes that each additional 10 minutes spent in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community involvement by 10 percent.  A report from the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) (20003) shows that America’s families spend more than 19 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation - an expense second only to housing and greater than food and health care combined.  The nation’s poorest families are particularly burdened, spending more than 40 percent of their take home pay just to get around (STPP, 2003).

Health Related Risks.  Sedentary living habits have increased in the last 20 years with the increase in desk jobs and the lack of exercise in peoples’ day-to-day lives.  The increasing use of automobiles has decreased physical activity.  Sedentary living contributes to poor health and the rising level of obesity in the United States.  It is estimated that physical inactivity and obesity are contributing factors in 300,000 to 500,000 deaths each year in the United States.  There has been an increase in the prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States over the last 20 years, adding over $100 billion/year to our national health care costs.  Nationwide, the proportion of children ages 6 to 18 that were overweight increased from 6 percent in 1976-1980 to 15 percent in 1999-2000.  Alarmingly, one in every seven kids is overweight in the United States (Jackson & Kochtitzky, 2001).  Design of cities and neighborhoods can encourage people to walk often and for relatively longer periods.  For example, residents of urban areas living in houses that were built prior to 1974 are more likely to get exercise walking than peers living in newer homes.  A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the link between walking and house age was present in urban and suburban areas but not in rural areas.  The study found that what makes older neighborhoods special is that homes are built close together making walking easy and time efficient.  Older neighborhoods mix homes with businesses and parks, which encourages walking over driving.  Sidewalks and the safety of streets are greater so we can walk more.  Newer neighborhoods usually have wider streets than do older neighborhoods and wider streets encourage higher speeds for auto traffic (Parks & Recreation, 2002).  According to public health professionals one of the most effective interventions is regular, physical activity such as bicycling and walking as well as leading an active life.  This realization provides parks and recreation professionals an opportunity to provide an active vision for the future as well as provide cost benefit analyses supporting our programs. 

Environmental Problems.  As sprawl increases our reliance on the automobile and often works to undermine general health, it also contributes to poor water and air quality.  A sprawling development pattern often undermines the benefits provided by a healthy ecosystem.  Ecosystem benefits include water and air purification, mitigation of floods & droughts, detoxification and decomposition of waste, soil generation and fertility, climate stabilization among others, and these benefits are typically undervalued in the marketplace.  Urban development typically negates these services with the loss of wetlands and the creation of impervious surfaces.  Watershed planning that is coordinated with recreation planning can reduce non-point source pollution, contribute to aquifer recharge, mitigate floods and droughts and provide for habitat diversity.  The park system within a community should be considered a part of the community infrastructure and an investment in the community’s natural capital.  A well-planned park system is coordinated with municipal water management, transportation planning and energy conservation.  A well-planned park and recreation system provides diverse benefits and can reduce infrastructure costs. 

Loss of Social Capital.  The idea of “social capital” has received a great deal of attention since the release of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling alone:  The collapse and revival of American community.  In this book, Putnam reviews the "state of community" and concludes that America is suffering from a decline in social capital.  Putnam defines social capital as “features of social life—networks, norms, and trust—that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives”. This is a critical element to the success of democracy. Putnam (2000) attributes our loss of social capital to a variety of factors such as changing work patterns, urban sprawl, generational change, television and other changes in technology.  Regardless of the cause, the issue of social capital is an important issue for leisure service professionals as one of the benefits of our programs and services is building social capital within communities.  Consider, in a study of conflict and violence in and around public housing in Chicago, researchers found that the residents of buildings with surrounding green space had a stronger sense of community, had better relationships with their neighbors, and reported using less violent ways of dealing with domestic conflicts, particularly with their parents (Sullivan & Kuo, 1996).

In dealing with these and other issues associated with sprawl, Kuntsler (1996) has called for developing a more widespread consensus of hope – a cultural agreement as to the kind of world we want to live in as well as the will to make this vision a reality. Developing a consensus of hope requires the ability to see the big picture, to move beyond specific disciplines to seeing the issue as a whole.  In this regard a liberal arts education provides a solid framework to understanding that development should encompass a wide range of economic, social, environmental, and spiritual components, which demand an interdisciplinary approach to urban issues. As Florida (2002) asks,  “What do we really want?  What kind of life and what kind of society do we want to bequeath to coming generations.  This is not something we can leave to the vagaries of chance, to the decisions of political leaders or even to the most forward looking public policy…To purposely address it we must harness all of our intelligence, our energy, and most important our awareness.  The task of building a truly creative society is not a game of solitaire.  This game, we play as a team” (p. 326). 

Process or innovation

In response to the challenge of connecting students to the city of Grand Rapids as well as getting them to think critically about the issue of sprawl, Calvin has initiated biking and walking tours of the community.  These tours have introduced students to specific neighborhoods as well as Grand Rapids as a whole.  Descriptions of these tours: 

  • Urban Bike Tours are a twenty to thirty mile bike trips throughout the metropolitan Grand Rapids area.  Tours includes over 20 stops of historical or contemporary significance to the city.  At each stop, students are engaged in thinking critically about urban issues (e.g. sprawl, declining tax base in cities, open space issues, greenways, etc), quality of life issues, and what kind of communities they want to live (the characteristics of a good community). A wide range of materials has been created (over 80 pages), which includes resources for each of the stops, complete with directions to the next stop, maps, old pictures, statistics, stories, neighborhood histories, etc.  An outline for discussion at one of the stops can be found here.
  • Walking tours have been created for a variety of neighborhood in Grand Rapids.  These tours present the history of the neighborhood as well as its current assets and challenges.  Students are often encouraged to connect with people in the neighborhood to discuss the area and what it offers residents.  Five neighborhood walking tours have been written up as docent sheets to offer resources for the leader of the tour.  These docent sheets can include maps, suggested itineraries, photos and other resources to help students understand the neighborhood. You can download these sheets here:

Characteristics and Key Features of both the walking and biking tours: 

  • Experiential.  These tours actively engage students as they walk or bicycle through the city, seeing first hand the challenges and beauty of the city of Grand Rapids. Students are challenged to critically think about what makes a good neighborhood and what contributes to the quality of life of individuals living throughout a large metropolitan area.  Students are also encouraged to share their experiences of working and living in the city.
  • Inter-disciplinary.  The tours also help students to see the complexities of dealing with issues such as urban sprawl and the need of a variety of perspectives in ultimately providing solutions to many of the issues we face today.  As the following diagram illustrates there are great opportunities for collaboration if people are aware and willing to engage with professionals from a wide variety of disciplines.  


Improved Quality of Life – Intersections among collaborators and activities

Adapted from:  Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2000

  • Addresses current issues.  These tours address a wide range of current urban issues such as green space within urban areas, walkability and/or bikeability of communities, urban design, and sports facilities development in downtown areas, etc.  Students are encouraged to reflect on these issues prior to and after completing each tour. 
  • Can be adapted and replicated.  These tours can be (and have been) adapted to meet a variety of educational objectives.  For example, the bike tour has been adapted in physical education and recreation to help students examine the role of parks, open space, and urban design play in addressing community issues such as fitness and environmental issues.  A resource book has been developed to assist with this process, providing a good foundation on which to build and adapt the tour as needed.  From our experience, we feel the concepts of walking and biking tours can be replicated in other communities as well.  Other examples of how the concepts of walking and biking tours have been use include: 
    • The urban bike tour was first created in the summer of 2005 as a means to offer students in Recreation 201 a means to connect the disciplines of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation to Quality of Life Issues.  Since this time the bike tour has been offered multiple times as a part of this class.
    • In the Fall of 2005, the tour was adapted and shortened to be a part of STREETFEST, the College’s first year student orientation program.  STREETFEST partners first year Calvin students and their faculty and staff mentors with over 50 community agencies, organizations and churches in several Grand Rapids neighborhoods.  Three days of practical chores initiate students into the importance of service learning throughout their college careers as well as strengthens ongoing partnerships with organizations throughout the Grand Rapids community. During STREETFEST the tour was shortened to approximately 20 miles and was used to introduce students to the city of Grand Rapids and the many service learning opportunities that exist for students to be involved in the community.  Over 60 students participated in three distinct tours lead by six different faculty.  These tours were repeated in the Fall of 2006 and are again scheduled for the Fall of 2007. You can download an article about STREETFEST here.
    • Walking tours of various Grand Rapids Neighborhoods have also been incorporated into STREETFEST in a number of ways (since the Fall of 2006).  Currently most service projects include a short walking tour of the neighborhood in which the students will be working.  In addition, full tours have been offered where more time is taken and further distance covered to examine a specific neighborhood. 
    • Numerous walking tours have been offered as a part of Prelude, a first year orientation class for students as a means to help students familiarize themselves with the city as well as gain an appreciation for the history and current developments going on in the city. 
    • In the Fall of 2006, the bike tour was used as a part of orientation for Project Neighborhood. Project Neighborhood is an alternative housing opportunity for Calvin students to live in intentional Christian community in the city of Grand Rapids. Participants are committed to personal spiritual growth, structured time together as house residents, and service to the neighborhood and community.
    • In the Spring of 2007, several walking and biking tours were offered in conjunction to the First Annual Embrace Our Place Festival.  These tours explored a number of different areas and neighborhoods within the city. 
    • In the Spring of 2007, a bike tour was offered for seminary students interested in Urban Ministries at the Calvin Seminary. 

Student response to both the walking and biking tours has been good.  Papers received from students in connection to the bike tour have been of good quality and indicate that students have been engaged in the process.  For example, one student sent the following email (unsolicited) in response to the bike tour.

Two things; First of all I just wanted to thank you for taking our class on the bike tour today. While I can't speak for everyone, personally I really enjoyed everything that we saw today. I had no idea that there was so much going on around Grand Rapids. Secondly I was really interested in all the community development going on around the city…so congrats on having a fairly substantial impact on at least one student.  Thanks again for a great day. (Student in Recreation 201 Class)

Students who have been involved in the STREETFEST tours have noted that they have been a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information but that overall they felt it gave them an excellent overview of the city. 

Future possibilities of incorporating bike and walking tours into classes include: 

  • Environmental Studies Students (Environmental Sciences 302: Environment and Society:  Issues and Policies).  Walking tours could be used here to examine environmental issues in neighborhoods as well as to see how humans have impacted the environment throughout history. 
  • Exercise Science Students (PE 201:  Historical and Sociological Foundations of Physical Education, Recreation, and Sport).  Continuation of the current bike tour examining how urban design impacts life long fitness levels. 
  • Geography Students (Geography 351:  Introduction to Urban and Regional Planning).  Bike and walking tours could be used here to introduce students to the history of the city and how it has developed over time as well as the current planning principles being used. 
  • History Students.  History students could be encouraged to develop walking tours in various neighborhoods of the city.  Such projects would require historical research as well as offer students the opportunity to share their knowledge with others. 
  • Nursing Students. (Nursing 379 Practicum:  Community Focused Nursing and Leadership/Management).  Nursing students doing practicums throughout the city could use walking tours as an introduction to the community in which they will be working.
  • Pre-Architecture Students.  Walking tours have longed served as an excellent way for architecture students to learn more about good urban design. 
  • Sociology Students (Sociology 302:  Urban Sociology).  Presently this class takes an urban bus tour, in the future this trip could be adapted to use bikes. 

More importantly, the College is beginning to develop a mindset, which encourages professors to think about how to connect students to the city.  As more tours are developed by students it is hoped that one day these tour possibilities could be organized and offered as options to outside groups to take a city tour in which students could share knowledge gained through developing tours themselves that examine specific themed issues (e.g. historical, sociological, architectural, etc.)

Student involvement

Walking and Biking tours have also given students a number of ways to become involved in their community.  For bike tours connected to the Recreation 201 class, students are expected to prepare a two paragraph introduction to a neighborhood, park, organization, or concept related to the city as well as write a reflection of the overall experience.  In addition, students who have participated in one of the walking or biking tours have gone on to develop tours for other neighborhoods in the city, looking at the historical development of the area as well as it current issues and future potential.  In the spring of 2007, one student worked with a professor to create a poster presentation entitled Urban Bike Tours:  Addressing the issue of sprawl for the National Recreation and Park Association’s National Health and Livability Summit in Atlanta, Georgia.


Connecting students to the Grand Rapids community is a key outcome to both the walking and biking tours that have been developed at Calvin College. The tours that are already in place offer students one means by which they can learn more about their communities as well as a way in which they can become involved. Each of the tours examine how many of the challenges described in this paper are inter-related as well as how the city of Grand Rapids is addressing these issues. They also encourage students to examine these issues in a physically active manner, modeling healthy behavior for the future.

In addition, it is also important for liberal arts colleges to help model the process whereby students can connect wherever they may settle after graduation. Getting student physically active (walking and biking) is an important lesson to teach students not only for their long-term physical health but also as a way to explore and get to know the communities in which they live. From this standpoint these types of tours could easily be replicated in other locations, capitalizing on the unique resources of any community in which the tours were initiated.

Literature Cited

  • Burns, K.  (1996).  Interview transcripts for the video Thomas Jefferson
  • Calvin College Course Catalog.  (2006/2007).  Grand Rapids, MI. 
    Dolan, M.  (2002), The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place.  New York:  The Lyons Press.
  • Edelman, M., Roe, J., & D. Patton.  (1999).  Land use conflict:  When city and country clash.  Oakbrook, IL:  Farm Foundation
  • Florida, R.  (2002).  The rise of the creative class.  New York:  Basic Books.
  • Hinds, M.  (1999).  A nice place to live:  Creating communities, fighting sprawl.  National Issues Forum. 
  • Jackson, R. & C. Kochtitzky.  (2001).  Creating a healthy environment:  The impact of the built environment on public health.  Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  • Kuntsler, J.  (1996, September).  Home from nowhere.  The Atlantic Monthly.  43-66.
  • Mouw, R. (2001).  He shines in all that’s fair.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing Company. 
  • Orfield, M. (1997).  Metro Politics
  • Putnam, R.  (2000).  Bowling alone:  The collapse and revival of American community.  New York:  Simon & Schuster. 
  • Robert Woods Johnson Foundation (2000).  Healthy Places, Healthy People:  Promoting Public Health & Physical Activity Through Community Design.  Washington D.C. 
  • Sierra Club Staff.  (1992).  Sierra club centennial.  Sierra, 77 (3), 52-73. 
  • Staff.  (2002, September).  Help your community walk and ride for better health.  Parks and Recreation
  • Sullivan, W., Kuo, F.  (1996).  Do trees strengthen urban communities, reduce domestic violence?  In U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Region.  Forestry report RB-FR 56.  January.  Available here.
  • Surface Transportation Policy Project (2003).  Transportation costs and the American Dream.  Available here

Case study contact

Donald De Graaf

Donald De Graaf

Professor, director, Off-Campus Programs
Full profile


Service-Learning Partnerships with local Elementary Schools: Creating Native Wildflower Gardens

Description of the Project and Relevance to the Course

In the spring term of Biology 112 (Biology for Elementary Education Majors) within the broad topic of ecology, we highlight the problematic influence of non-native species (also known as ‘biological pollution’). We begin by asking students to brainstorm answers to this question:  What traits allow some non-native species to become invasive to the point that they degrade native biodiversity? 

From the list generated by students, we focus on one of the answers that inevitably arises – that invasive species may have a greater capacity for reproduction than native species.  This, we posit, is a real-life hypothesis that can be tested and at this point we introduce the students to a local problematic invasive, Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).  We choose to focus on Purple loosestrife because it is excessively abundant in West Michigan and in wetlands on our own campus.  Furthermore, the factors that lead to the unbalanced success of this plant are not well understood by ecologists.  Together with the class we then design an experimental and announce to the students that we are going to carry out this experiment as a class.

The design includes planting six replicates of 100 seeds each of Purple loosestrife, the results of which are compared with six replicates of 100 seeds each from a variety of native species.  We then assign each pair of students in the class one of the species (we do this by pulling species names out of a hat) and distribute to them a small bag of seeds that had been collected during the previous growing season and over-wintered to break dormancy.

Students count out their allotments of seeds and plant them in small trays (12 trays per flat, hence the utility of using six replicates) that are kept in our college greenhouse.  During the ensuing 4 weeks, the number of emerged seedlings in each tray are counted and recorded at the beginning of each class period (three times per week).  A large data set is thus accumulated.  After all germination has ceased we devote one class period to data processing, which requires students to calculate mean and standard deviation values that they use to generate graphs (mean seedling emergence over time).  These graphs are then used to evaluate the original hypothesis.

Several objectives with regard to the relevance of this project for the course are achieved with this project.  Students engage directly in the scientific process, allowing the scientific method to come to life in a real-world context.  They see why it is important for an experiment to be designed with an initial hypothesis, why replicates are used and how data can be processed and organized in such a way that affords direct evaluation of the hypothesis.  Also, when students are counting their seeds, we have them collect five seeds from each species and tape them onto a common sheet behind each species’ name.  This master sheet is then photocopied so students can see the huge difference in seed size (Purple loosestrife produces the smallest seeds – over 2 million each year by a single plant).  This visual displays provides a springboard to discussing the different strategies plants use in attempting to establish their offspring into succeeding generations. 

Germination success varies widely among the species, with Purple loosestrife typically the fastest and most successful (as high as 90% after just one week).  From the graphs students create, they readily generate evidence that supports the initial hypothesis.  This activity also allows students to make predictions, based on their data, for which species are most likely to be the best competitors with Purple loosestrife.  Usually some species show markedly low germination or fail to germinate at all.  This result provides opportunity to discuss the environmental factors that are required for seed germination to occur. 

After counting is finished and graphs have been produced, the scientific inquiry of the project is complete.  However, the experiment leaves us with a host of valuable native seedlings.  We then use these native seedlings to assist a local school in establishing a native plant garden on their school grounds.  This process is initiated with a seemingly innocent class discussion on the types of plants used in home landscaping and why they are used.  Students are led to identify a list of benefits for utilizing native plants in urban settings.  An appreciation for the value of native plants is developed, including the support of native pollinators, less dependency on chemical inputs, improved genetic diversity by increasing opportunity for cross-pollination, and a deeper appreciation for the indigenous biodiversity of our local ecological context. 

We then devote a class period to hosting students from the partner school.  College students and elementary students are paired up in small groups and the college students (future teachers) explain the experiment and their results to the elementary students.  After this ‘lesson’, which includes an emphasis on the value of planting native wildflowers, the mixed groups together transplant native seedlings into larger pots (Purple loosestrife, of course, is not included in this transplanting effort).  During the last week of class we take Calvin students and the transplanted seedlings to the Elementary school where we re-unite the previously formed groups.  Together the groups outplant their seedlings into a site that had been prepared by the Elementary students.

Relevant Theory and Research

This simple project elicits significant outcomes (knowledge and seedlings) that help to connect our college students to the ecological and social landscape within which their learning takes place.  While higher education tends to emphasize the broadening of our students’ intellectual and curricular experience, it often lacks in promoting an understanding of the applied value of what is being learned (Russo, 2003).  Typically college education occurs in a type of transcendental vacuum where rootedness in a specific place is ignored (Zencey, 1996).  By contrast, when we deepen our students’ understanding of their relatedness to a particular physical context, we simultaneously deepen their understanding of who they are and the responsibilities they bear as citizens of that particular place (Curry et al., 2002). 

The service-learning component that concludes this project necessitates an off-campus experience for our students.  This experience allows our students opportunity to get to know particular children from our partner school, providing a meaningful bridge to the community in which our campus resides (Boyer 1996).  Institutional and personal relationships add meaning to the biological lessons learned, which leads our students to appreciate how the information they acquire in a scientific experiment can be used in ways that promote the beauty and integrity of their social and ecological context (Eyler and Giles, 1999; Plater, 1999).  This approach counters classic scientific reductionism and instead emphasizes the place-based context within which all learning takes place (Kloppenburg, 1991).

Pedagogical Suggestions to Foster Student Learning and Engagement

The inquiry-based investigation aspect of this project engages students in the same thought processes as real scientists (Roth, 1995), which is an overarching objective of this activity.  Students not only learn about the scientific method, but they do so by taking part in a meaningful scientific experiment (Krajcik et al.,1999).  This investigation incorporates inquiry as a teaching method as well as a learning strategy as is recommended by the move to reform science education (National Research Council, 2000).  Furthermore, this experiment generates information that legitimately contributes to a deeper understanding of the question being investigated, a question that at present is unresolved by mainstream science (Farnsworth and Ellis, 2001). 

During another activity related to the ecological theme of this course we take students to one of the ponds on campus to collect pond water.  At this time we also show the students stands of Purple loosestrife that occur at the pond site.  This ‘eyewitness’ experience supports the timeliness and importance of the germination study we are doing. 

The multi-age groups that we assign during the transplanting and outplanting service learning activities have proved to be invaluable.  Each time we have done this activity we have been impressed with how some students who may not achieve high academic success in a more traditional classroom setting often flourish in these real-life interactions with younger children.  This approach clearly engages some students who are not typically engaged with more traditional pedagogical strategies (Miles et al., 2000). 

As part of this project we also ask each pair of students to generate a research paper (3-5 pages) on their particular species.  In this paper they document the physical attributes of their plant, its distribution, relative abundance, habitat preference and any ethnobotanical uses the plant afforded the native peoples who lived in our region.  At the conclusion of this paper we ask the students to devote one paragraph to reflection of the activity – what they learned from this project and what they liked and did not like about it.  Such reflection heightens the effectiveness of our teaching and also gives these future teachers opportunity to consider elements of good pedagogy.

Finally, the papers produced are collected at the end of the term, graded and then compiled into a booklet that is given to the partner school.  Since the students are aware that this will be the end result of their paper, they are again shown how good scholarship can be a service to their community.  This element adds motivation that typically results in very high quality research papers.

Suggestions for Involving Community Leaders

We use seeds that have been collected during the fall semester, mostly by Plant Taxonomy students (Biology 346) as part of a restoration ecology laboratory activity which is taught by one of the professors of the Biology 112 class.  If means are not available for a class or school to collect seeds themselves, native seeds can readily be purchased from (or donated by) a local native plant nursery.  It would also be possible for a class to partner with a local garden club for assistance in obtaining native wildflower seeds.  Local seed sources are always preferred – local genotypes will be particularly suited to grow well within the specific context of one’s home institution.

The elementary teachers we have worked with have been very enthusiastic about the project.  They see this garden as a wonderful teaching opportunity themselves, both for the students who assist in establishing the garden, but also for future students who will be able to use the garden as a study area.  In addition, with most schools the principle is also involved and typically makes an appearance during the outplanting activity.  I frequently also receive reports from other teachers, administrative assistants and even custodial staff about the progress of the plants.  We are now in the process of compiling a generalized booklet that describes ongoing care and pedagogical suggestions for using these native wildflower gardens in elementary curricula. 

Gardens like that described here have also been jointly established with Calvin students and our own campus grounds department, with local municipal parks, as well as a YMCA camp.  After a recent public presentation on this work, I was approached by a director for an adult assisted care center who asked if we might consider partnering with her clients in a future effort.  We have found this activity to hold great potential for connecting our students to a diversity of community partners from a wide variety of backgrounds. For most of these potential partner organizations, the construction of such a garden is prohibitively expensive, therefore the assistance we provide makes possible an outcome that would otherwise be unattainable.

Suggestions for Potential Course Placement

This activity, especially the partnership with an elementary school, finds particular resonance with our college students, who are mostly elementary education majors.  However, this activity can be done in any introductory biology or botany course.  Most college students will find themselves some day to be homeowners and will have urban landscapes they will be caring for.  Since many of the most problematic non-native invasive species have their origin as garden elements, the relevance of this activity is broadly applicable.

Although we utilize Purple loosestrife for our project, any number of local invasive species could be substituted.  Therefore, the structure of this activity is readily transferable to any context, given a minimal understanding of the local ecology and local flora.  The project could even be expanded, if so desired, and students themselves could be given an assignment to identify the most problematic invasive species in their area, as well as native species that are threatened by the invasive plant.  Such an assignment would require more time but would likely connect students more intimately to their ecological context.

Literature Cited

  • Boyer, E. L.  (1996).  The scholarship of engagement.  Journal of Public Service and Outreach 1(1): 11-20.
  • Curry, J. M., G. Heffner and D. Warners.  (2002).  Environmental service-learning: Social transformation through caring for a particular place.  Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 9(1): 58-66.
  • Eyler, J. and D. Giles.  (1999).  Where’s the Learning in Service-learning?  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Farnsworth, E. J. and D. R. Ellis.  (2001).  Is purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) an invasive threat to freshwater wetlands?  Conflicting evidence from several ecological metrics.  Wetlands, 21(2): 199-209.
  • Kloppenburg, J. R. Jr.  (1991).  Social theory and the de/reconstruction of agricultural science:  Local knowledge for an alternative agriculture.  Rural Sociology 56(4): 519-548.
  • Krajcik, J.S., C.M. Czerniak, and C. Berger. (1999). Teaching Children Science: A Project-based Approach.  Boston: McGraw-Hill College.
  • Miles, I., W. C. Sullivan and F. E. Kuo.  (2000).  Psychological benefits of volunteering for restoration projects.  Ecological Restoration 18(4): 218-227.
  • National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
  • Plater, W.  (1999).  Habits of Living:  Engaging the campus as citizen one scholar at a time.  Pages 141-172 in R. G. Bringle, E. A. Mallow and R. Games (Eds.), Colleges and Universities as Citizens.  Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Roth, W. M. (1995). Authentic School Science: Knowing and Learning in Open-Inquiry Science Laboratories.  Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Russo, R.  (2003).  Enhancing environmental education through service-learning.  National Society for Experiential Education Quarterly.  28(1): 5-9.
  • Zencey, E.  (1996).  The rootless professors.  Pages 15-19 in W. Vitek and W. Jackson (Eds.), Rooted in the Land:  Essays on Community and Place.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.

Case study contact

Dave Warners

Dave Warners

Full profile

Food For Thought: Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability


Food is central to our existence and survival, and that of all people, but its supply is increasingly distant from the experience and understanding of many people.  Urbanization has spatially separated vast numbers of people from their food source, a culture of food production, and possibly an appropriate concept of the value of food.  Yet, as Jared Diamond (2005) eloquently describes in his book “Collapse”, the inability of major cultures like the Mayans, Khmer, and Anasazi to survive is strongly linked with the loss of food production capacity due to such issues as deforestation, soil erosion, and loss or overuse of sufficient fresh water supply.  One goal of Biology 364, Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability, is to provide context of what healthful food is, where it comes from, and what it takes to produce it, and how the various activities involved impact the quest of a society to become more sustainable.

The “Food For Thought” project of Biology 364 represents an effort to connect largely urban students with the source of food in the context of sustainability issues and to improve their sense of “ecological literacy”.  Orr (1992) recounts the loss of ecological literacy in our generation, for example the failure to recognize linkages like the color of stream water and food supply, and the risks this lack of understanding poses as a voting and consuming public faces ever growing environmental issues on local and global scales.  He further suggests this loss of ecological perspective is due in part to students being taught that ecology is unimportant for history, politics, economics, and society.  It seems highly advantageous, then, to consider the spectrum of food and food-related issues and their connectedness with health, nutrition, environment, and justice issues in the context of a liberal arts curriculum where the costs and benefits of an action as simple fertilization can be seen on food quantity, environmental quality, and recreational opportunities of a largely urban public.

By grappling with direct and externalized costs of food production (Tegtmeier and Duffy, 2004), by personally observing food production process in a specific place and with common people, students are challenged to rationalize their preconceptions about the interplay between human and environmental health issues, economic models and social systems.  The desired outcome is a clearer understanding of what the real issues are, what trade-offs are apparent in an effort to become more sustainable, and eventually what consequences might be associated with application of a developed country’s food production paradigm to that of a developing country.


Calvin College is located in an urban area and predominantly draws students from urban and suburban environments.  This is not uncommon as the great majority of people in the U.S. live in urban settings.  Even of those living in rural areas, only a small percentage of people are actually involved in food production today.  It has not always been this way.  Only six decades ago, most Americans were directly involved in some aspect of food production.   In this time period, productivity has increased 166% and still accounts for 10% of the U.S. gross domestic product even though available agricultural land has decreased by 25% and employs less than 1% of all workers (Doyle, 2007).

The perspective of food for most Americans, certainly including our students, is that it is inexpensive and readily available in great variety and at all times of year, and consequently, is largely taken for granted.  Just take a jaunt to the local supermarket and one can sense the largesse, variety of options, accessible 24-hours a day at reasonable cost.  Closer examination makes it clear that we seriously underestimate the cost (and maybe value) of our food (Pretty, 2002). 

At the same time, students have broad awareness that healthcare costs are an issue in developed countries and that many people in developing countries lack sufficient food of reasonable quality.  Epidemics such as heart disease, some cancers, and diabetes are directly related to food consumption and exercise patterns (Lang and Heasman, 2004).  Concerns are consistently raised that consumption of pesticide residues in our food may cause cancer or may trigger neurological or immune system diseases.  Regular media reports of food like hamburger or spinach being contaminated with pathogens, which can cause serious illness or death, grab our attention and raise significant question in our minds about the safety of the food we purchase from the local supermarket. 

Images of starving children in the media haunt our perceptions as well.  While root causes and issues resulting in world hunger are hard to decipher, it is clear that 800M of our fellow men, women, and children are not able to consume even the minimum 1700 calories of food per day to keep a sedentary person healthy (Lappe and Collins, 1986) .  Whether acute or chronic in nature, starvation is a reality in our world and our students see these issues in the media and increasingly first-hand while participating in off-campus classes.

Current Situation

Significant concern and mistrust has been brewing in the public mind about the safety and quality of the food produced and available to us in the local grocery store, particularly food derived from conventional methods.  While much concern relates to food harboring bacterial pathogens of humans, many students do carry perceptions about topics as organic food, pesticide use, and soil erosion.  Closer examination of these perceptions and the issues underlying them reveals that many of these opinions, while common in the popular eye, do not bear up well against the facts.

Interest in consuming organic, vegetarian or vegan diets is growing and in response, most grocers now carry large organic food sections.  Many reasons for this trend exist, with food safety, environmental health, and justice issues ranking high on the list.  To the surprise of many, conventional and much organic food is sourced from industrial farm operations and it is virtually impossible for a consumer to identify where food purchased at the local grocery came from, how it was handled, or how safe it may or may not be for consumption.  One survey reported that organic food consumers purchase these products at 10-40% price premiums to achieve improved health and nutrition (67%) or to avoid pesticides (70%; Whole Foods Market, 2005), contributing to 20% annual growth in the industry since 1990.  While organic foods contained lower pesticide and nitrate residue levels than conventionally derived foods, they occasionally contain higher levels of plant secondary metabolites that pose potential benefits or health concerns.  In spite of substantial effort to determine if organic food is healthier or more nutritious than conventional food, available evidence does not yet enable researchers to ascertain whether measured differences are of biological significance (Winter and Davis, 2006). 

Similarly, while soil erosion is still occurring at a rate faster than soil regeneration and therefore should remain a matter of concern, it may not be the most important land use factor.  Significant progress has been made mainly by adopting minimum tillage production methods.  In a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Smith (2004) reported that farmers simultaneously reduced soil erosion rate 40% over a 20 year period and increased the grain crop yield by one fifth.  A greater concern than “soil erosion” may be the permanent “erosion” of 1.2 million acres of agricultural land annually to uses other than food production. 

Another general belief seems to be that big, industrial farmers are more concerned about profits than product safety or environmental quality.  While a sustainable farmer must be profitable, it is often not understood that farmers receive a very small proportion of the value stream generated by the sale of finished products in the local grocery store and that much of agricultural land consolidation and increased farm size resulted as a consequence of bankruptcy that ties back to a low-cost food policy and commodity value. 

Academic institutions are increasingly sensitive to increasing interest in food and food-related ranging across issues of human and environmental health, hunger, and land-use.  More recently, community supported agriculture (CSA) networks are being rapidly established in many areas.  Many universities and colleges include disciplinary approaches to food issues through agronomy, food science, and environmental science departments and programs.  Kenyon College (Kenyon, OH) is a leader in this area as a liberal arts college, having developed the “Food For Thought (FFT)” program over the past ten years.  FFT represents a holistic approach to these issues that spans research, education, operational, and outreach efforts.  Specific initiatives include accessing local (and increasingly organic) food by college food services, building a sustainable local market, weaving food issues through the art and sciences curriculum, developing exhibits, presentations and publications that convey information about the issues, and hosting conferences.  The multiplicity and connectedness of issues revolving around food that touch all dimensions of life, particularly considering linkages between urban and rural elements of developed society, lends itself well to study within the context of liberal arts.

Biology 364: Global Health, Environment and Sustainability

Biology 364 is a course co-listed with Biology and International Development.  The only core requirement is a general biology course for non-majors.  As such, this course is intended to develop a synthetic perspective, linking biological principles with health and environmental sustainability issues in global context.  Food serves as a useful model because it is central to these linkages in the context of both developed and developing countries.  Before being able to compare food production systems of developed with those of developing countries, however, we needed to develop a clear and realistic understanding of the situation in a developed country such as the U.S.  A major problem is that most urban students have little understanding of where their food comes from and what it takes to produce it.  Most have never visited a farm, know how big a cow is, or where milk actually comes from.  Most do not know what steps take place relative to the process of planting, growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, marketing, and eventual buying and consumption.

The primary goals of the “Food For Thought” project in Biology 364 were to:

  1. give students first-hand experience of where food comes from by touring a farm,
  2. enhance accurate understanding of what the food production issues and trade-offs are by dialoging with the farmer, and
  3. enable students to evaluate the sustainability of various food production practices by reporting farm visit observations to the class and evaluating what they mean. 


The course instructor identified a number of growers and made telephone calls to them explaining the goals of the course, the project, and what would be expected of them and the students.  The grower was asked to give a brief walking tour of their farm and an interview by one group of two to three students.  With their consent, they were told that the student group would call to make an appointment, would travel to their farm for the visit, and would ask them questions about what they produce, how they produce it, and how their views about sustainability.  Of the farmers asked, all indicated willingness to participate.  A wide variety of farm types were identified, including large and organic vegetable, industrial and family dairy, organic and conventional orchard, and grain production.  Each farm was located within a thirty mile radius of the college.  A couple of growers indicated their desire to keep interviews short.  In the end, however, discussions typically lasted significantly longer.

Classroom time was devoted to developing the concept of sustainability and providing a primer on interviewing skills in preparation for on-farm visits by student groups.  Sustainability has been broadly defined as a concept in which three goals must be satisfied simultaneously:  environmental, economic, and social.  No action, process, movement, or business can be truly sustainable unless it satisfies all three areas.  For example, a business that meets environmental and social obligations while not be economically sound is unsustainable. 

Behaviors and attitudes associated with successful interviews were presented in class to help student groups plan roles and responsibilities during the interview.  A common set of questions was developed for each interview that began with a series of informational or fact-finding questions and transitioned to a series of feeling-finding questions focused on understanding farmer thinking about why they conduct operations as they do.  Sample interview questions follow:

  1. Describe your food production operation.  How long have you operated?  What do you produce?
  2. How has your operation changed over time?
  3. What are some features you like, and don’t like, about farming?
  4. What are your major business risks?
  5. How does your product the health of consumers?  The environment?
  6. How is the way you produce food sustainable?  How is it not?
  7. What have changed to become more sustainable?
  8. What does the Calvin College community need to know about your business?  How might Calvin support your business?

Interviews were to be tape-recorded if allowed by the farmer.  Groups positioned themselves to have one or two students to be the primary point of discussion and one to be a scribe.  Each group was challenged to discuss the questions before the interview and to try to anticipate how the interviewee might respond to the various questions so that seamless dialogue might more naturally occur during the interview.

Student groups were provided with a tape recorder and tape, grower name and address, and a telephone number.  They were instructed to contact the grower, set up an appointment, visit the farm and conduct the interview in a period of two weeks.  Post-interview, they were to develop a 5-7 minute classroom group presentation to share the interview results.  

After the interview, each group was challenged to assess and defend their perception of the sustainability of the farm they visited.  Classroom presentations included a description of the farm; key lessons learned from the interview about that operation, the group’s sustainability ratings (on a 1-5 scale, where 1 represents “fully sustainable”) for each dimension of sustainability, from an environmental, economic, and social perspective.  After the presentation, each class member was asked to come up with their own overall sustainability rating for the operation.  A brief discussion followed that focused on individuals sharing why they rated as they did and what if anything could or should be done to improve sustainability if they were in charge of that operation.  Finally, each individual was to write a 3-5 page paper in which to report and rationalize personal and class observations for their farm visit, concluding with a reflection about what they learned from their farm visit and from their exposure to farm visits as reported by their peers.

Farm Visit Learnings

Assessment of the interview created a tremendous amount of debate within groups while preparing for the verbal report to the class.  Students found that it took significant effort to understand ideas the grower was attempting to communicate due in part to very different frames a reference between the grower and the students.  Issues raised by the grower were often significantly different from what the students expected.  For example, students were surprised to consistently hear that farmers care deeply about soil quality, the environment they farm in, or the quality of the food they produce – regardless of farm size or organic/conventional approach.  Students were surprised to learn that many farmers, across a broad range of product types and production systems, willingly accept costs of operation to address some environmental issue, that while a healthy bottom line is fundamental to staying in business it was not the most important feature.  The interview tapes provided a welcome opportunity for groups to listen again to the discussion as a way of developing a more uniform perception of the grower’s message. 

Requiring the group to agree upon a specific rating for each dimension of sustainability and sustainability prior to class presentation served as a lightning rod for deeper discussions within groups.  Issues debated within groups often were redressed later during the broader class discussion.  Students found their own perceptions going into the interview were surprisingly different from one another and sometimes poorly aligned with realities discovered during the interviews.  The practical requirement of trade-off’s was clearly illustrated in these discussions as the class compared production systems in the context of sustainability dimensions.  For example, when one operation seemed economically viable, sacrifices might have been made in the social dimension.  Or if another operation was heavily focused in the environmental dimension, economic health might have been in jeopardy. 

Feedback from growers at the conclusion of the class indicated that the farmers felt a great sense of appreciation that the students would take the time to come to their farm and invest themselves in learning about their issues.  Farmers articulated several times that they were glad that people cared enough about food production questions to visit and dialogue.  Farmers often mentioned that they know American society does not understand well what they do but that they have little opportunity to share what they have learned through years of experience.  Other farmers indicated that dialogue with students helped open their eyes so that they now more clearly understand how they are perceived by the urban public.  All have indicated interest in being visited by similar student groups in following years.


A major goal of this project was to face students with the realities of food production process and issues of sustainability, thereby gaining deeper understanding of where our food comes from and issues revolving around its production within developed societies.  While not solving specific problems, it certainly seems as though our largely urban student perceptions are significantly more informed about actual local rural issues of food production.  Broadly held beliefs before the farm visits include ideas that organic is good, big farms are bad, soil erosion is the number one problem, and that farmers don’t really care about quality as long as they make money.  While opinions about these beliefs may or may not have changed in fundamental ways, they certainly became much more informed about what the issues are when connected with people in rural society. 

Students did find that local markets are preferred by the grower if only they were accessible, that both conventional and organic production systems offer trade-offs, that land development represents an ultimate source of “erosion” from agriculture, that farmers intimately care about their soil and go through great lengths to slow soil loss, and that often a farmer will do what is right even if it costs them money or reduces profits.  It became evident and personal that farmer problems are connected to urban problems and those urban problems also become farmer problems.  Intentional dialogue between these parties has tremendous potential to help urban and rural societies work together for greater good and that building sustainable societies in this time of declining natural resources and climbing energy costs will require better common understanding and constructive dialogue.

Literature Cited

  • Diamond, Jared.  2005.  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  Penguin Group, NY, NY.  575 pp.
  • Doyle, Rodger.  2007.  Food Boom.  Scientific American.  P. 34.
  • Lang, T. and M. Heasman.  2004.  “Diet and health: Diseases and food”, in Lang, T. and M. Heasman (eds) Food Wars, Earthscan, London, pp. 47-60, 96-97.
  • Lappe, F.M. and J. Collins.  1986.  World Hunger: Twelve Myths.  Grove Press, NY, NY.  208 p.
  • Orr, David.  1992.  Ecological literacy.  SUNY Press, Albany, New York.
  • Pretty, Jules.  2002.  “Reality cheques”, in Pretty, J.  Agri-culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, Earthscan, London, pp. 52-60.
  • Sacks, Howard L.  2007.  Food For Thought.  Kenyon College,
  • Smith, Mark.  2004.  “Land Retirement,” in USDA, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators 2003 (Washington, DC: 2003), section 6.2 updated in December 2000, p. 14; USDA, Economic Research Service, Agri-Environmental Policy at the Crossroads: Guideposts on a Changing Landscape, Agricultural Economic Report No. 794 (Washington DC: January 2001).
  • Tegtmeier, E.M. and M.D. Duffy.  2004.  “The external costs of agricultural production in the United States’, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, vol. 2, pp 55-175.
  • Whole Foods Market.  2006.  2005 Whole Foods Market organic trend tracker.  Whole Foods Market, Austin, TX.
  • Winter, C.K. and S.F. Davis.  Organic Foods.  J. Food Science 71(9): R117-R124.

Case study contact

David Dornbos

David Dornbos

Professor, Department Chair
Full profile


Transforming a nursing department by emphasizing place and partnership


Community engagement in higher education can vary in how it is operationalized.  One type of engagement may involve a faculty member forming a relationship in the community so that a course could educate students while providing a service to the community.  A different type of engagement may involve not only providing a community service but having place shape course content and experiences.  Is there a way that higher education can increase the breadth and depth of community engagement beyond a single course or single faculty member?  Should higher education be striving for more?  What would it look like to have a level of engagement where place actually informs what you do as a department?

 The following case study provides a unique example of how place shaped a department, curriculum, student practice, and faculty scholarship. 


Calvin College houses a nursing program which awards baccalaureate degrees to approximately 60 students annually.  The 4 year nursing program is grounded in the liberal arts.  The first two years of coursework are devoted strictly to the liberal arts.  All of the nursing coursework occurs during the last two years.  By having a strong emphasis on liberal arts prior to the nursing program, students come into the program with a rich knowledge base.  Health is complex and may require various disciplinary approaches.  Students are more effective in their nursing care when they have an understanding of the deeper issues that affect the health of individuals, families and communities and how to address them.

In 2002, the nursing department initiated a new community-based nursing curriculum.  The curriculum was designed in response to trends in health care, current nursing literature, and recommendations from accrediting bodies of nursing (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 1998; Pew Health Professions Commission, 1998; Community Campus Partnerships for Health). 

In addition, the curriculum was created to flow from the vision and mission of Calvin College.  Calvin College seeks to not only serve the internal community, but to also serve the external community, promoting social justice and reconciliation (Calvin College, 2002). 

Lastly, the new curriculum was influenced by a unique neighborhood partnership piloted by a couple nursing faculty a few years prior to the curriculum revision.

Transformation of a Nursing Department

In 1997, two faculty members piloted a partnership with one underserved urban neighborhood, where service to the community was emphasized as much as the student learning.  As the experience and relationship grew, the partnership began to in turn impact student practice and the faculty member.  During this time, the department began to see the benefits of the experience and embrace the thought of a new approach to student practicum experiences.  All baccalaureate nursing programs have a community practicum component where students spend time outside of the acute care setting.  Traditionally these experiences have involved providing nursing care to a population already being cared for by other community nurses and health care agencies.  This approach occasionally resulted in community residents feeling like they were being used for student learning, agency staff displaying weariness in the extra time demanded on them to oversee a student, competition for community sites among local schools of nursing, and faculty feeling challenged to promote an ideal learning experience in the midst of the previous three.  In contrast, the piloted partnership led to community agencies viewing nursing students as an asset, residents feeling like they benefitted from nursing student activities and students who were excited about an educational experience that actually met a gap in health care rather than duplicating care.

 When faculty began writing the new curriculum, the department decided to replicate the piloted approach throughout the curriculum and apply it to all students in their community practicums rather than just a few in the pilot.  To accomplish this goal, the nursing department formed partnerships with two additional underserved, low income neighborhoods in the surrounding urban area.  Relationships were built with residents and service providers in the two new neighborhoods before initiation of the curriculum.  The neighborhood was assured that the nursing department was committed to a long-term relationship where effort would be made to match student learning experiences with the strengths and needs of each neighborhood.  The nursing department desired an even deeper partnership than in the pilot where community voice would drive student learning experiences across the curriculum.  During the first two years of the new curriculum, community based participatory research methods were used to listen to the voice of the neighborhood (Heffner, Zandee, & Schwander, 2002).  Some of the top neighborhood concerns voiced by residents were access to health care, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, depression, unintended pregnancies and lead poisoning.  Action plans were written in collaboration with residents and neighborhood providers to match specific strengths and needs identified by each neighborhood with strengths and learning needs of nursing students.  Through this process, place began to shape student practice across the curriculum.

The nursing curriculum has 4 semesters of coursework, consisting of theory, lab, and practicum experiences.  In the 1st semester, students have a 5 week practicum experience of 13 hours a week in their neighborhood, providing nursing care to individuals within the context of their family and community.  Some activities students participate in include:  providing nursing care at a neighborhood clinic, teaching health education at neighborhood schools, promoting health among children at risk for diabetes, and providing blood pressure and blood sugar screenings at various neighborhood sites.  During the 2nd semester a portion of the students return to their neighborhood for 15 hours of practicum time providing asthma education and care.  During the 4th and final semester of the nursing program, students return again to their neighborhood of origin to learn how to provide nursing care to the neighborhood as a whole.  For this practicum experience, students spend 13 hours a week for 6 weeks.  Some activities students participate in include: community health fairs, providing assessment and health education for diabetics, lead poisoning screening and education, and working with a community health worker (neighborhood resident) promoting health and access to care for the neighborhood.

By investing in a neighborhood as “place” and having students return to that neighborhood across the curriculum, not only do students learn about the role of the community health nurse, but students wrestle with deeper issues such as disparities in health, injustice, and how to apply the core virtues of the colleges curriculum (such as diligence, patience, courage, creativity, empathy, humility) to a specific neighborhood in which they are engaged.  Students see the value of long term commitment to their community by building on the work done previously by students and casting a vision of health in their neighborhood for the future.  They also feel a sense of pride that their educational experience was not solely for their benefit alone.  They graduate knowing that they have made a significant impact on the health of the most vulnerable in the city.

Because the department’s investment in place flowed so closely to the mission of the college, administration was very supportive of their efforts from the beginning.  One key to successful community partnerships was having the necessary staff to develop, maintain and sustain the partnerships.  The nursing department created a position for one part-time faculty to oversee the neighborhood partnerships as a whole and built in time for three neighborhood coordinator faculty (one per neighborhood) to oversee student activities along with strengthening relationships in each neighborhood (Feenstra, Gordon, Hansen, & Zandee, 2006).  These unique roles were affirmed and supported by administration.  An exciting, additional result of these new faculty roles was a level of engagement that not only allowed faculty to accomplish their curriculum responsibilities but to act as a living example of commitment to place.  Outside of their job, each neighborhood coordinator faculty volunteers at their neighborhood clinic, participates on neighborhood boards, or serves in various neighborhood functions.  This deepened investment by faculty infiltrates their teaching and models a true commitment to place to students.

Place and partnership has also made a significant impact on departmental scholarship.  Faculty have pursued grants, conducted research and disseminated results both locally and nationally in an effort to address concerns identified by each neighborhood, promote social change, and impact the future of how community practicums are taught in schools of nursing.  The interesting part of this impact was not only did place increase scholarship opportunities for faculty but it actually shaped what topics faculty were researching and grants they were pursuing.

Lastly, having a department committed to partnership and place has opened doors to collaborate with other departments on campus.  The nursing department has sought the help of other disciplines when nursing alone was unable to meet the needs identified in their neighborhood or felt that collaboration would allow the issue to be addressed more effectively.  In addition, other disciplines on campus have approached nursing when they were seeking to expand community learning opportunities for students.  New opportunities for collaboration have also expanded for the nursing department with those external to the college.  Over the past 5 years, nursing has had the opportunity to collaborate with community agencies and neighboring colleges and universities in areas of scholarship and practice within the partnering neighborhoods.

Involving Community Leaders

It was very important for the nursing department to have community leaders involved prior to establishing neighborhood partnerships.  Every effort was made to link with key city / county service providers to inform them of the college’s intentions along with looking for ways to meet gaps in care rather than duplicate care.  Time was also spent connecting with neighborhood leaders, both formal and informal.  These leaders helped identify the neighborhoods strengths, needs, and brought ideas how to meet the neighborhood needs. 

Even more important, however, was involving residents themselves.  This commitment to resident voice and involvement is very challenging but absolutely crucial to success.  Residents need to not only be involved in identifying the strengths and health concerns for their neighborhood but also the solutions.  They then need to have an ongoing formal voice as the community partnership grows and evolves over time so that place can accurately inform what you do as a department. 

Suggestions for Other Departments

There is tremendous potential when a whole department is supportive and united in their approach to community engagement.  It can deepen student learning, increase faculty scholarship opportunities, open doors for collaboration within and outside of the college, and significantly impact the community. 

Faculty who have been including a service-learning component into a single course or have been involved in some level of community engagement may want to consider a conversation with their department regarding the future of those experiences.  Could the present engagement increase in breadth and depth?  Are there ways that community needs should be shaping faculty scholarship, student activities, or the curriculum?  Are there other issues in the surrounding community that the department could address collectively?

Dialogue is at least a starting point to increase faculty buy-in, discuss benefits and barriers, and work towards being united.  The potential is great, there just needs to be someone to take a leadership role in drawing it out.

Literature Cited

  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing.  (1998).  The essentials of baccalaureate education for professional nursing practice.  Washington, DC:  Author.
  • Calvin College.  (2002).  An expanded statement of the mission of Calvin College.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Author.
  • “Community Campus Partnership for Health”.  From
  • Feenstra, C., Gordon, B., Hansen, D., and Zandee, G. (2006).  Managing community and neighborhood partnerships in a community-based nursing curriculum.  Journal of Professional Nursing, 22(4): 236-241.
  • Heffner, G. G., Zandee, G. L., and Schwander, L. (2002).  Listening to community voices:  Community based research, a first step in partnership and outreach.  Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 8(1): 127-139.
  • Pew Health Professions Commission.  (1998).  Recreating health professional practice for a new century.  San Francisco:  Author.

Case study contact

Gail Zandee

Gail Zandee

Associate Professor
Full profile

Get the Lead Out! Retailer Survey


In 2002, the Nursing Department at Calvin College began partnering with the local Get the Lead Out! Collaborative to impact the disproportionately high incidence of childhood lead poisoning in the City of Grand Rapids’ low-income neighborhoods.  Get the Lead Out! is a locally developed campaign that coalesces a variety of partners from various disciplines to holistically address the conditions that cause childhood lead poisoning.  Partners come from health care, housing, early childhood development, government, academia, community-based organizations, and the environmental movement.  The campaign is facilitated by the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, a non-profit organization.

The involvement of the Calvin College Nursing Department in Get the Lead Out! has been primarily through the community health rotation of the students’ senior year practicum.  Nursing students have been involved in a wide variety of childhood lead poisoning prevention activities, including community awareness, blood lead testing drives, and parent education.

Other departments at Calvin have also been introduced to the work of the Get the Lead Out! through the partnership with the Nursing Department.  Students from both the Sociology and Psychology departments have worked with the campaign to offer lead dust sampling assistance to low-income households—a simple way for homeowners to know the relative risk of the lead levels in their home.  In particular, a Health Psychology class is studying the relationships between lead dust levels, psychological indicators, and the likelihood a family will take preventive action.

In addition, a Social Work class has connected with the Healthy Homes Coalition to promote awareness of radon.  Like lead, radon is a health hazard found in housing for which prevention is the best strategy.  The Social Work class is conducting community education and offering free radon testing for interested homeowners.

This case study will explore a specific course of activities that began in 2005 when Calvin Nursing faculty participated in discussions about household sources of lead poisoning.  One significant source is the lead-based paint dust and residue created when do-it-yourself homeowners and untrained rental maintenance crews use unsafe work practices.  Ensuring that homeowners and maintenance staff use Lead Safe Work Practices (LSWP) is an essential but daunting task.

The role of home remodeling suppliers and retailers was discussed at a Get the Lead Out! Outreach Committee meeting and the group explored the retailer accountability program used by Improving Kids’ Environments in Indianapolis, Indiana ( The group decided to conduct a similar study with some unique differences.  Given the Get the Lead Out! Collaborative’s strategy of engaging a wide variety of stakeholders as partners, the group elected not to “blind shop” the retailers and not to release negative findings about specific businesses.  Securing informed consent at the beginning of the study allowed Calvin, Grand Valley State University, and the Collaborative the opportunity to engage the retailers as enthusiastic partners in their efforts to end childhood lead poisoning.  Obtaining consent and promising anonymity also satisfied Institutional Review Board requirements.

Description of the Project

The Retailer Survey project was designed by Calvin Nursing in late 2005 in partnership with the other members of the Get the Lead Out! Outreach Committee; most notably the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Kirkhof School of Nursing, the Healthy Homes Coalition, and the Kent County Health Department.  The goal of the project was to collect base-line information about the practices of 40 paint and building supply retailers serving four low-income, central city neighborhoods (10 retailers per neighborhood).  The study sought to assess the knowledge of paint retailers regarding LSWP, evaluate inventory of products and display of information on LSWP, and to lay the groundwork for future engagement of retail industry.

Collaboratively, Calvin and GVSU designed survey tools and an approach that would meet with IRB approval.  The Healthy Homes Coalition assisted by providing technical expertise regarding LSWP and the needed supplies and materials.  Existing community and faith-based partners working with Calvin (3 neighborhoods) and GVSU (1 neighborhood) identified key retailers.

In the spring of 2006, nursing students from both colleges initiated contact with 40 retailers using a prepared telephone script to schedule a session for data collection.  Thirty-seven (92.5%) of the retailers agreed to participate.

Teams of two students then visited each retailer to collect data using a prepared script and survey.  Students were instructed to record both survey participant comments as well as empirical observations of the store environment.  Thirty-two (80%) surveys were satisfactorily completed, including consent forms.

The survey investigated LSWP educational materials provided to customers, products sold, staff training, and customer education.  A narrow majority of retailers stocked some of the products needed for LSWP.  The vast majority provided little or no educational materials and conducted no employee or customer education.  Forty percent of retailers surveyed failed to answer even one of the questions satisfactorily.

The study was completed in June 2006 and provided students, faculty and the Get the Lead Out! Outreach Committee clear indication that there is a need to 1) disseminate information to retailers, 2) develop educational programs on LSWP for retailers and customers, and 3) build sustainable collaborations and projects.

Following the study, Calvin and GVSU nursing students developed a scripted approach and returned to the surveyed paint retailers in the spring and early summer of 2007 to ensure that they have adequate educational materials and to offer the assistance of Get the Lead Out! in training retailer staff.  Students have also developed, at the request of one retailer, a succinct, one-page fact sheet that includes local resources for homeowners and maintenance staff.  This fact sheet was shared with many who participated, which resulted in an additional retailer requesting the fact sheet in Spanish, which was accomplished and welcomed by other retailers.

Plans to sustain this program include re-surveying participants in 2008 to measure improvement (and offering the service to new retailers).  It is anticipated that ongoing measurement will take place in even numbered years, with education and technical assistance during the years in between.

Project Relevance to the Course Being Taught

Opportunities to engage nursing students in community health experiences are becoming more and more difficult as the public health infrastructure in Michigan is being challenged with ongoing reductions in funding.  To that end, this project has demonstrated how community health concepts can be taught outside of the context of more formal government health programs.  This project illustrates fully that community and public health are not solely in the governmental domain, but can also be advanced through the collaborative work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.

Students participating in this project experienced first-hand the role of NGOs in promoting public health.  Leading the local Get the Lead Out! campaign to eliminate childhood lead poisoning, the Healthy Homes Coalition worked with students to ensure that they understood the subject matter and its local context.  This allowed the students to study and work with a community health issue in a real-world context with the support of knowledgeable staff.  It also allowed them to see the breadth of activities that are required to address a complex issue like childhood lead poisoning.

The study also allowed students to engage with the private sector to understand how basic business principles intersect with community health priorities, and to wrestle with the challenges of the often-divergent priorities of these two arenas.

Through this study, students were able experience first-hand the limitations external to health care upon a population at risk.  While their primary concern is the health of children, students explored the other factors that allow conditions to exist that put children at risk.  They had the opportunity to work first-hand with individuals and organizations that are attempting to mitigate the problem through solutions found outside of traditional health care.  They also had the opportunity to work with retailers in the private sector—a group that has a potentially contrasting self-interest.  The students learned how to speak to the self-interests of these retailers.  For example, students explained the justification for an investment in staff training by explaining how knowledgeable staff might be able to sell additional LSWP products, thus increasing sales.

Students also learned how to collaborate.  Not only were students required to work in teams, but also the project was coordinated between two institutions of higher education.  In addition, efforts needed to be coordinated with NGOs, public health and the private sector.  The coordination required of this project provided an excellent learning opportunity regarding collaboration and clear communication.

Relevant Theory and Research

The theory and research directly related to impacting the role of paint retailers is limited.  No research studying the effectiveness of this activity as a pedagogical approach for undergraduate students could be located.  However, existing research on lead hazards in U.S. housing and documentation of outreach efforts in Hartford, Connecticut and in New Jersey are instructive to the efforts of the Calvin campaign.

In 2002, David Jacobs, then Director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, published the first comprehensive assessment of the extent of lead hazards in U.S. housing.  With hazards in an estimated 24-27 million housing units, the conclusions of this study made numerous points relevant to working collaboratively with paint retailers.

According to Jacobs, “despite a large decline in the number of housing units with lead-based paint from 1990 to 2000, there are still millions remaining with hazards. Resources should be directed to those most likely to cause childhood lead poisoning: older housing units with lead-based paint hazards that are occupied by (or likely to be occupied by) children under 6 years of age and are low-income and/or are undergoing certain housing rehabilitation or maintenance that disturbs surfaces coated with lead-based paint. Hazard controls should focus on deteriorated lead based paint, windows, doors, dust, and bare soil in play areas 1.”  This conclusion supports the Calvin focus upon retailers that serve low-income neighborhoods in the City of Grand Rapids as identified by neighborhood residents.

Building capacity among retailers to educate consumers is also supported by Jacob’s observation that “(f)urther efforts are needed to improve maintenance standards by incorporating lead-safe work practices into routine housing operations, especially in low-income housing. Further efforts are also needed to educate maintenance and housing rehabilitation workers, property owners, parents, and others to help ensure that lead-based paint remaining in millions of houses does not become hazardous and pose future risks to millions of children born into or occupying such houses in the coming decades.”

An informal study conducted in Hartford, Connecticut suggests the relative effectiveness of educational outreach through retailers versus other outreach and education strategies.  While other strategies were more effective in Hartford, local program evaluation revealed that 36.8% of 180 respondents reported recalling lead safety messages displayed at retailers 2.

The Hartford campaign consisted of an educational table in front of a local hardware store from March through April in 2000 and 2001, in conjunction with the U.S. EPA’s “Keep It Clean” campaign. “The goal was to reach patrons and pedestrians with messages about lead poisoning and lead-safe work practices and to inform residents that further information could be obtained at the Hartford Health Department.”

The ranking of the campaign components reveals the relative effectiveness of their display at the hardware store.  When respondents were asked to recall where they received their lead safety message, the percent of recall, from highest to lowest, was as follows: “newspaper advertisements, signage on buses, billboards, signage on sanitation trucks, display at store, advertisements on milk/juice container, postmark, art display, and video.”  Eleven percent of respondents 11% reported that “they took specific steps to learn more about or prevent lead poisoning” as prompted by the hardware store display.

Rutgers Cooperative Extension conducted two outreach efforts in collaboration with retailers in New Jersey.  While strict evaluation of their program’s effectiveness was not obtained, they reported the following observations.  “An important side effect of this outreach was the informal education provided to store staff as our outreach worker replenished brochures. Here, some significant misperceptions among store personnel were put to rest.”  And, “(a)fter multiple visits, it became evident that the outreach worker became a trusted expert in the eyes of store personnel. It was also evident that their understanding and attitudes regarding the lead paint problem were enhanced 3.”

The documented efforts in Connecticut and New Jersey, along with the Calvin experience, point to the value of these activities to improving local community capacity.  Observation of these outcomes by nursing students can reasonable be assumed to contribute to their experience and awareness that a community and public health agenda can be advanced through the collaborative work of local public health, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.

Pedagogical Suggestions to Foster Student Learning and Engagement

The retailer survey provides a number of opportunities for fostering student learning.  To begin with, students are required to have a basic understanding of childhood lead poisoning and its causes.  This fits with nursing students need to understand the complexities of environmental health problems.  In the case of the Calvin project, this was accomplished by inviting in a guest speaker from the Healthy Homes Coalition to provide an overview.  Students could also be required to research childhood lead poisoning prevention methodologies.

Nursing students are further engaged in the project through the survey itself.  By delivering the survey, the students gain first-hand experience with the private sector and come to understand the private sector’s role in the prevention of childhood lead poisoning.  Student experience is at first limited to the surveys that they complete.  Having students share their experiences with their peers should broaden individual experience.  Discussion about the findings of the entire class can help students see patterns, allowing them to engage in community problem solving.

After completing the surveys, students return to share results with the individual retailers.  This affords an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter by requiring them to share expertise.  In numerous cases, students took this requirement quite seriously and looked for educational and sample materials to share with the retailers.  Students could be required to research and develop educational packets for participating retailers.

The following year, the students returned to the retailers to share with them recommendations for best practices.  This provided and excellent opportunity for the new rotation of students to also engage in community problem solving as they reviewed the results of the previous year’s study.  Calvin students also took this opportunity to develop additional educational and outreach materials for the retailers that included local information and resources.

While the methodology of the survey must be standardized for sound data collection, this project affords numerous opportunities for students to research the subject matter, to engage in community problem solving and to demonstrate a mastery of the material by sharing it with others.

Suggestions for Involving Community Leaders in the Design of a Locally Situated Problem

Even if a local coalition for the prevention of childhood lead poisoning does not exist, there are many opportunities to engage local community leaders in the design and implementation of such a study.  Foremost, local public health departments in most areas of the U.S. are engaged in childhood lead poisoning prevention and case surveillance to some degree.  Since 1998, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention required that state health departments conduct rigorous surveillance of childhood lead poisoning, which most often has resulted in the engagement of local public health.  State and local public health can be excellent resources for the identification of high-risk areas and prevention resources.

At the federal level, Medicaid requires providers to test all enrolled children at one and two years of age.  This requirement has gotten the attention of public and private health providers alike.

Beyond public health, other health leaders are also often interested in childhood lead poisoning.  Sometimes health provider interest is not limited to lead poisoning, but extends to a wider collection of children’s environmental health issues such as asthma triggers, toxins in the homes, carbon monoxide, and more.  In some communities, it may be more beneficial to look at wider children’s environmental health issues, rather than focusing specifically on lead poisoning.  The survey could easily be adapted to include such topics as pesticides, carbon monoxide detectors, and other health issues (as has been done by the Improving Kids’ Environments in Indianapolis).

Housing professionals are another source of support.  Non-profit housing advocates are often interested in the provision of safe, affordable housing.  Tenant unions also have an interest in safe housing.  In many cases, non-profit housing providers use federal funding and are therefore held to lead safety standards that have raised their concern for this issue.  In the private sector, guilds and associations may be interested in lead safe work practices as a capacity building issue and may collaborate for training and education.

Early childhood advocates are also natural allies.  Working with families on healthy childhood development, these organizations know about and are concerned with the hazards of lead and other children’s environmental health issues.  Some, like Head Start, are required to engage families in blood lead testing.  Many are focused on primary prevention and are dedicated to providing healthy living environments for children.

The strongest advocates at the local level often are grassroots community-based organizations and environmental advocates.  Neighborhood organizations, ethnic organizations, ACORN, local chapters of the Sierra Club, and many others have provided local leadership in many communities.  These groups often focus upon environmental justice and may have a high level of interest in gaining the cooperation of retailers and other corporate citizens.

Suggestions for Potential Course Placement of a Case Study

In the case of Calvin College, this study was conducted in the nursing program.  Replication in nursing or other health sciences is recommended.  However, this project also lends itself to replication in other departments. 

The study could be conducted in social work or sociology, looking at the social dynamics involved in educating low-income, do-it-yourself homeowners as well as how to engage the private sector in solving community problems.

The study could also be integrated into business curriculum, looking at the role of small business owners in the avoidance of harm.  This project also fits well with the current emphasis in many business programs as they begin looking at the concept of sustainability, particularly as it relates to the promotion of social justice.

The project could also be connected to studies in public policy.  The greatest gains in the reduction of childhood lead poisoning in the U.S. have come primarily as a result of public policy decisions.  In 2003, the National Paint and Coatings Association signed a binding agreement committing to consumer education with the Attorney Generals of 46 states, 4 U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. The effectiveness of and compliance with this agreement could be studied.

More Information

For further information on the Calvin College / GVSU Get the Lead Out! Paint Retailer Survey, feel free to contact Paul Haan at the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, (616) 734-9443.

  1. Jacobs DE, Clickner RP, Zhou JY, Viet SM, Marker DA, Rogers JW, Zeldin DC, Broene P, Friedman W. The Prevalence of Lead-based Paint Hazards in U.S. Housing. Environ Health Perspect 2002; 110(10); 599606.
  2. McLaughlin T, Humphries, Jr. O, NguyenT, Maljanian R, McCormack K. “Getting the Lead Out” in Hartford Connecticut: A multifaceted Lead-Poisoning Awareness Campaign. Environ Health Perspect 2004; 112(1).
  3. Ponessa J. Educational Outreach in a Large Retail Chain: Opportunities, Challenges, and Suggested Approaches. Journal of Extension 2003: 41(2)
Geography / Environmental Studies

Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP)


How do you construct your curriculum to enhance its embeddedness with your place, without adding extra demands on faculty?  How do you integrate research, expertise, and teaching into the life of the community in order to enhance learning and the development of virtues, allowing students and faculty to live more whole lives?

In higher education we work at challenging students to see issues in a framework that goes beyond the limitations of their parochial, or locally based experiences – college is meant to be a broadening experience.  This is easy because most faculty are themselves “rootless professors,” using the words of Eric Zencey (1996).  Professors are supposed to belong to the world of ideas rather than places.  An alternative is to see education as a deepening of local understanding.  When we deepen our understanding of the places where we live we gain a greater understanding of who we are, the intricacies of our place, and our responsibilities.  Then we may in turn have the skills to learn to appreciate and care for other places.  Perhaps broadening experiences include the route of understanding the “other” via a deepening of our understanding of who and where we are.  Historian Christopher Lasch (1991) claimed that allegiance to the “world” is ineffective because it stretches our capacity for loyalty too thin.  In reality, we love particular people and places.  Abstract ideals need to be made concrete through loving, understanding, and caring for particular people and places.

The Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP) at Calvin builds on this need to serve and show caretaking through the process of paying attention to that which is closest at hand.  CEAP involves faculty across the college, but mainly in the sciences, who each dedicate regular lab sessions or projects to collecting data that contribute to an overall assessment of the environment of the campus and surroundings areas. CEAP is informed by debates in philosophy of science over the particularity versus the universality of knowledge, exemplifying the science of local knowledge and the importance of the embeddedness of knowledge.  CEAP also reflects the educational philosophy of Nel Noddings.  CEAP models Noddings’ Care Theory pedagogy which calls for the embeddedness of the learning in caring relationships and real life settings.

CEAP involves more than 20 courses as well as 400 students across the college, but mainly in the sciences.  Faculty dedicate regular lab sessions or course projects to collecting data that contribute to an overall assessment of the environment of the campus and surroundings areas.  These studies are brought together in a once-a-semester event which involves a poster session and CEAP lecture.  In addition, faculty and some students meet for a workshop each summer to review and plan.  The Calvin Environmental Assessment Program serves the liberal arts through the encouragement of cross-disciplinary learning, the linking of larger questions, typical of the liberal arts (For example, what does it mean to live the “good life?”) with the operationalization of the answers to these types of questions, and the development of the virtue of stewardship through the development of habits of stewardship based on attentiveness to place.

CEAP has led to an increase in cross-disciplinary interaction, the creation of a point of engagement with the planning process, a growing connection between word and deed, and a sense of the wholeness of research, teaching, and personal commitments.  CEAP has provided a basis of getting faculty involved in community issues, based on their expertise, but within the time and subject matter constraints found within the sciences.  The most recent direction of CEAP has been to expand our sense of belonging and responsibility to the Plaster Creek Watershed.  Thus research and organizational efforts have moved up in scale, incorporating community partners in the effort.


CEAP presents several advantages in terms of liberal arts pedagogy.  First, students have the potential of encountering CEAP through many classes, multiple times, and at multiple levels.  This learning builds on itself, and grows with the students’ abilities.  Lower-level courses have tended to take on the task of environmental monitoring of elements like water and air quality. Upper-level students have taken on more complex tasks.  Secondly, CEAP provides students with a greater understanding of the inter-disciplinary nature of problems and the role of group work in their solutions by providing a context within which data must be shared across disciplines, and through formal working groups of courses.  For example, geography students collected data on students’ use of campus space, to be analyzed by an advanced statistics class.  This sharing of data forced the geography students to be thorough and pay closer attention to the reporting format of the data collection because others depended on their clarity and because it was going to be used for campus planning.  Classes sometimes form working teams and share data and specialties, modeling real-world working-group strategies.  The data form the basis for recommended changes in campus policies, for programs that target individual behavioral changes, and for identifying issues that involve and impact the adjacent neighborhoods and thus form the basis for cooperative action and planning.  Thirdly, CEAP classroom projects are underlain with the goal of social change through individual student transformation as well as institutional change through increased visibility and accurate data collection.

CEAP and the Local Community

The CEAP project provides a context for engagement with the larger neighborhood and the larger Grand Rapids urban area.  For example, as we studied the issue of planning on our own campus we encountered the larger issue of mass transit in the Grand Rapids region.  This has led to more partnerships with the local transit authority.  Likewise, the CEAP garbology project, which tracks the nature of Calvin College's trash, has raised issues of recycling behavior on campus, but also the issue of the regional recycled material market and Calvin's place in this regional problem.  Thus questions that start out as campus questions, naturally draw the campus into the regional dialogue. 

CEAP is a public project in that the end-of-the-semester poster sessions are open to the public and neighbors surrounding Calvin College and regional environmental groups are specifically invited to these events as well as the larger community.  At the recent 10th anniversary of CEAP, students and faculty combined the poster session with a field day where families were encouraged to come to campus and work through activities at different environmental stations across campus.  The CEAP website is also a public website, used by courses as a depository of their research results.  The data is occasionally used by people from outside the campus. CEAP blurs the boundaries between academic learning and student life, between academic programs and campus planning, as well as between the campus and the surrounding community.

The Role of CEAP in Courses

The CEAP program has great flexibility in terms of its incorporation into courses.  The structure of CEAP allows for maximum creativity among faculty and extensive impact on students while requiring a minimum time commitment by either.  For example, faculty can frame CEAP projects in terms of course material and needs.  One freshman English composition course was entirely organized around CEAP subject matter, while most science courses include particular lab exercises.  The range of types of courses and course activities related to CEAP, the differing levels of research and engagement, the interdisciplinary nature of the work, and its relationship to the community is illustrated in the following example: 

In August of 1998, a two-acre pond on Calvin's main campus experienced an unprecedented fish die-off.  Within a 24 hour period approximately 2000 fish expired, and were left floating on the surface of the pond.  Shortly thereafter unhappy neighbors called to complain of the smell and wondered what had happened to provoke such an incident.  Motivated by the fish-dying event, a Biology faculty member developed a CEAP project for a course.  The work of his students led to the conclusion that the likely cause of this algal bloom was the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from urban fertilizers.  This pond is the immediate water detention basin for storm water runoff from the surrounding neighborhood.  A popular practice in this suburban community is to fertilize lawn areas in late summer and it was surmised that unusually heavy rain events prior to the algal bloom had washed many of the lawn nutrients directly into the pond, stimulating algal growth.

This particular event and the accumulated data were presented at the CEAP Poster Session in November, and interest in the issue was heightened.  The following spring, an Honors English 100 class became engaged in a CEAP project that focused on producing a neighborhood newsletter for all homeowners within the watershed that drains into these ponds.  The newsletter emphasized the importance of understanding the function of watersheds and it highlighted the incident of dead fish, along with its likely cause.

In this newsletter homeowners were encouraged to change their behavior by decreasing their lawn fertilizing applications or by using an alternative fertilizer that is recommended for yards that are adjacent to sensitive wetlands.  Homeowners that emptied their swimming pools directly into the storm drains were also asked to allow their pool water to settle for a sufficient time before it is drained, thereby diminishing the amount of chlorine that may be entering the pond.  As a result, several neighbors contacted Calvin before emptying pools to ensure the college that they had allowed the chlorine to evaporate. 

In an attempt to further address this issue, a senior engineering design team selected this issue as their year-long project in the fall of 1999.  Four engineering students, along with a Biology student, became fully engaged with this issue and presented the administration with a state-of-the-art storm water treatment system proposal.  This design utilized a series of levees and shallow water areas planted in native vegetation to filter out potential contaminants before they reached the pond itself. The administration seriously considered this plan, but due mostly to space constraints, opted for a simpler, less comprehensive storm water treatment basin.  This plan led to the construction of an earthen berm that holds back the storm water runoff in a detention pond, the overflow of which leads into the larger pond itself.  Although this was initially disappointing to the design team and to others involved in this issue, it did signify a positive step towards improving the water quality of pond.  During the negotiations, the administration pledged funds to create an extensive native wildflower planting on the berm.  During the summer of 2000 six students worked with two CEAP professors for two weeks, re-contouring and planting this berm with over 2000 transplanted native wildflowers and grasses, as well as more than 20 pounds of native plant seed.  The water in this pond has become regularly monitored by an introductory honors Chemistry lab every fall.

The planting itself was designed to facilitate future experimentation and monitoring.  This particular project has attracted the attention of the municipality into which the water from the pond eventually flows.  While not realizing the full capacity of the engineering students’ original plan, this project has been cited as an example to the broader community of an environmentally sensitive strategy for improving water quality in the broader watershed.


  • Flora, Cornelia B. 1992 "Reconstructing Agriculture: The Case for Local Knowledge." Rural Sociology 57(1): 92-97.
  • Hassanein, N. and J. R. Kloppenburg, Jr. 1995. "Where the Grass Grows Again: Knowledge Exchange in the Sustainable Agriculture Movement." Rural Sociology 60(4): 721-740.
  • Jackson, Wes. 1987. Alters of Unhewn Stone:  Science and the Earth. NY:  North Point Press.
  • Kloppenburg, J. Jr. 1991. "Social Theory and the De/Reconstruction of Agricultural Science:  Local Knowledge for an Alternative Agriculture" Rural Sociology 56(4): 519-548.
  • Lasch, Christopher. 1991. The True and Only Heaven. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Noddings, Nel. 1984.  Caring:  A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Reisner, A. 1992. "Tracing the Linkages of World Views, Information Handling, and Communications Vehicles." Agriculture and Human Values 9(2): 4-16.
  • Zencey, Eric. 1996. “The Rootless Professors.”  Rooted in the Land:  Essays on Community and Place.  Edited by William Vitek and Wes Jackson. New Haven: Yale University Press. Pp. 15-19.

Intentional Student Communities: Project Neighborhood, Pamoja House, Our Place

Description of the Project

Unstructured off-campus time for students is a largely untapped area of student learning and community involvement 1. In order to effectively embed engagement into their core work, campuses must consider ways for students to participate naturally as active citizens within their geographic neighborhoods.  Intentional living environments that allow for healthy exchange between students, faculty, and community residents provide an arena for the deep learning that depends on involvement and community.  Campuses that are primarily residential face greater challenges here, but even these can develop ways to remind students that they are citizens of neighborhoods, towns, cities, or municipalities. 

Colleges should work to inform their students of local, regional, state, national, and international issues, through regular interaction with neighbors, city leaders, and residents.  This can be done naturally by exposing students to local non-profit organizations with target issues ranging from the local to the global.  For students to interact with other citizens, ranging from neighbors who are involved in the local Neighborhood Watch to local alumni who have organized Amnesty International chapters, provides them with models of engagement and lifelong citizenship.

Colleges and universities must help students to recognize that their lives are not fragmented collections of unconnected realities.  Built environments, natural environments, academic, social, political, and vocational commitments are all related in meaningful ways.  By providing students with resources for connecting with local residents, whether they be faculty, staff, alumni, or friends of the college, who live in the vicinity of students’ own residences will help to make the connections more visible and obvious.  This is not a new idea in higher education, just one that has been neglected as institutions have grown and the research model has supplanted the residential faculty model of operation.

In this environment in which fragmentation and specialization in higher education have led to a loss of community, education for citizenship has become counter-intuitive for students 2.  Bellah and his associates (1996), and more recently Putnam (2000) have presented convincing scholarship supporting this assumption.  Higher education in America has contributed to this trend by separating knowledge, skills and virtue and by enabling students to buy into a rampant, and particularly American, societal individualism.  Intentional Christian communities of learning, growing, serving, living, and worship can and do counteract this powerful force for students, staff and faculty at colleges and universities.  This case study’s focus is the historical context of student and faculty community involvement in American higher education, but focuses on Calvin College’s history and efforts toward intentional community.

The Historical Context

Around the turn of the twentieth century, faculty and students in American colleges and universities began researching the “social problem.”  At several universities, the study of such social problems and a concomitant interest in settlement work began as early as the 1880s (Kemeny, 1998).  For example, Jane Addams Hull House, situated in Chicago offered an environment where college students and faculty lived in poor, urban neighborhoods to study and assist the poor. 

The Hull House served as a catalyst in the rapid growth of the social sciences.  Addams had the ability to appeal to both old and new schools of thought in American life.  Crunden (1982) suggested that “her impoverished immigrants from Europe, with their needs and problems, provided the children of Anglo-Saxon middle classes with experiences otherwise unknown to them, and this occurred within a manageable setting.  Hull-House cut both ways: it satisfied the amateur conscience wanting to do good and the professional need to research well” (p. 68).  Becoming a general secretary of a YMCA, or going to work at a settlement house became viable career options for college men and women who wanted to combine their passion for ministry with their desire to address the problems of poverty and injustice, or with their desire to foster spiritual growth in college students.

Graduating seniors from across the nation looked for ways to become involved in the evolving social reform movement as evidenced by the number of students who became involved in the settlement house movement.  Between 1886 and 1911, 17,500 students and recent graduates, mostly from affluent families, joined Jane Addams on her urban crusade (Strauss & Howe, 1991).  One graduating student from Brown University characterized the nineteenth century as one that had seen both complicated social problems, as well as a “new era of sympathy,” wherein people had begun to consider themselves more than ever as parts of “a great organic whole, upon whose welfare depends the prosperity of every individual.”  Students who committed themselves to this work would spend time with the poor, not at a distance but hand to hand and bring into the lives of those men what they most need - the inspiration of genuine sympathy and true-hearted friendship.”  Aldrich (1894) made the claim that by living among the poor and teaching thrift and industry, college settlement workers were also stabilizing the democracy.  “The worthiness and stability of a democratic government,” according to Aldrich, “must always depend upon the morality of the masses… Civic virtue is dependent on morality.  How then can a nation prosper when the integrity of her citizens is lost?”  Therefore, argued Aldrich, “the establishment of college settlements in the great nerve centers of populations marks an era of political improvement and is one of the rays of light behind the clouds which are now darkening the sunshine of our national prosperity.”  This creative new movement addressed social, moral, and political progress.  Social obligation drove men and women into the work of settlement houses in the same way that spiritual obligation had served to call men in previous generations to lives of Christian ministry. 

Fast Forward: Intentional Christian Community at Calvin College

Calvin College developed as a liberal arts college with a national reach during the years following the most intense emphasis on the social gospel, 1890-1920.  Until the 1970s, it remained almost exclusively inhabited by and in existence for the children and grandchildren of the Dutch Reformed immigrants of the Christian Reformed Church.  The social upheaval of the 1960s combined with the theological shifts of the late 1960s toward a more explicit openness and engagement with culture conspired to begin a movement where the college began to see itself as a participant both in local issues as well as national scholarly conversations.  In addition, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the college itself moved from the confines of its small, urban location to a sprawling suburban campus to accommodate a burgeoning student body.  The move enabled the college to build several large residence halls, and eventually to purchase adjacent apartment complexes, all of which has led to its current housing configuration of approximately 2200 of 4000 (roughly 56%) students living on-campus.  While a worthy topic of discussion, the intentional community that is fostered in these on-campus residences is outside the boundaries of the current case study. 

Living-learning communities have been a popular pedagogical idea throughout the history of American liberal arts higher education.  Calvin College has been no exception to this tradition of creative pedagogy linking the college experience to the idea of various forms of community.  Several efforts to enable students to learn in community, and in a community, over the past few decades have coalesced in a current climate of learning that transcends, unsurprisingly, the borders of formal classrooms.  Rooted in the early 1970s with the establishment of a community of faculty, students and community members known as the Worden Street Community, three more recent efforts linking students, faculty or staff, and community in a residential learning environment.  These three are: Project Neighborhood, the Pamoja House, and Our Place.

Modeled after the Swiss Christian community founded by theologian and social critic Francis Schaefer, known as L’Abri (“shelter”), the Worden Street Community began in the fall of 1971 as an attempt to enable a few faculty members to develop a more “satisfying and valuable lifestyle.”  (see “An Experiment in Christian Living”  Calvin College Chimes, May 12, 1972).  Students were included in a living arrangement that included three faculty families and one local physician and his family.  The four families purchased homes on the same urban street together and rented an additional apartment in the lower half of a fifth house.  The student newspaper reporting on motives for including students noted that, “Besides giving the students an additional learning experience, the group hoped that they could get to know and understand the student psyche better.”  The community remained intact until the mid-1980s, when the faculty members and their families eventually left the area for academic commitments elsewhere.

The impulse for off-campus intentional Christian community seems to have lain dormant for several years after the closure of the Worden Street Community, but in the late 1990s, a resurgence of interest appeared.  In 1996 Calvin began its first semester program of off-campus, international study in Tegucigalpa, Honduras 3.  As the pool of students who had spent time in Honduras grew, a small community, known as Pamoja, (Kiswahili for “together”) was founded to accommodate these students’ interest in living in more intentional ways that were in line with some of the commitments made while in Honduras.  The group has moved several times, but has maintained its neighborhood focus, its faculty/staff mentor couple, and its commitments to simplicity, local food, and vegetarian leanings.  Meanwhile, in the fall of 1997 a conversation between the college Chaplain, the Service-Learning Director, and a local entrepreneur and his wife culminated in the purchase of a large, older home in the vicinity of the former urban campus.  The home was intended to serve as a place where students could live in intentional community, focusing on both the internal commitments of a community of Christians to each others’ well-being, but also on the external commitments of a neighborhood community, the need to know and serve one’s neighbors as a manifestation of one’s Christian convictions.  This house became known as the Koinonia House (Greek for “Fellowship”), and subsequent houses were opened on the same model by the college in ensuing years.  Currently the college operates the Koinonia House, and two additional houses in collaboration with local church communities.  The Peniel House (Greek for “Face of God”) is a collaboration with Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and the Harambee House (Kiswahili for “Pull Together”) is a collaboration with First Christian Reformed Church. The houses continue to function on the model of a balance between building internal and external community, and students who are selected to live in them are required to form a mutual covenant with each other and an adult mentor hired by the college, and to spend ten hours per week in some form of community service, and to participate in a one-credit interdisciplinary course exploring the theoretical and practical elements of both internal and external community living.

More recently, since the spring of 2006, a student movement known as Our Place has arisen.  The roots of this movement are found in at least two areas.  First, a 2002 restructuring to student leadership opportunities created the Barnabas Team, a leadership opportunity designed to infuse the wisdom and maturity of third and fourth year students back into the residence halls environment where first and second year students typically live.  The position acknowledged the existence of two campuses, the on-campus campus, and the off-campus campus, and attempted to create more intentional bridges between the two.  A later result was the creation of an “off-campus intern” Barnabas position, designed to better understand where off-campus students were living and how to better connect the two campuses.  The other root is an interdisciplinary course taught in fall 2005 and spring 2006 on the history and sociology of student activism – several students from this course joined with others in the making of the Our Place movement.  Our Place has been an attempt to explicitly link college faculty and administrators with students, in student homes, to talk about ways to live in intentional Christian community.  Events ranging from regular Saturday morning pancake breakfasts, to gatherings at the homes of influential administrators like the Provost or the Vice-President for Student Life, have enabled a rich conversation to animate both students and staff.

Finally, as a result of Pamoja, Project Neighborhood, and Our Place, several other more organic housing communities have emerged, and the college is responding in multiple ways, through both curricular and co-curricular means, and through staff and faculty, to meet the needs of this movement toward the connection between living and learning commitments.

Literature Cited

  • Addams, J. Twenty Years at Hull-House.  University of Illinois Press.  Urbanna and Chicago. 1990. 
  • Aldrich, C. S. (1894, June 20).  The college settlement as a sphere of usefulness for educated men.  Brown University Student Essays, Brown University Archives, Brown University. 
  • Bellah, R.; Madsen, R.; Sullivan, W.; Swidler, A.; & Tipton, S. (1996).  Habits of the Heart: Individualism, and Commitment in American Life.  Berkley, CA:  University of California Press. 
  • Bouman, J.  (2006).  “A Seamless Coat of Learning: Weaving Together Telos and Praxis through Committed Community Engagement.” 20th Anniversary Essay Collection, Campus Compact, Embedding Engagement in Higher Education, online at
  • Colby, A., et al. (2003).  Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Cruden, R. (1982).  Ministers of Reform:  The Progressives Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920.  New York:  Basic Books. 
  • Eyler, J. and Giles, D.E. (1999).  Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning?  Jossey-Bass Publishers. San Francisco.
  • Garber, S.  (1996).  The Fabric of Faithfulness.  InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, Illinois. 
  • Heffner, G.G. and Beversluis, C.D. (editors).  (2002).  Commitment and Connection: Service Learning and Christian Higher Education. University Press of America, Inc. New York.
  • Janzen, D. Fire, Salt, and Peace: Intentional Christian Communities Alive in North America.  Shalom Mission Communities.  Illinois. 1996
  • Kemeny, P.  (1998).  Princeton in the Nation’s Service: Religious Ideals and Educational Practice, 1868-1928.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McKnight, J.  (1995).  The Careless Society:  Community and its Counterfeits.  New York:  Basic Books.
  • Mulder, M., Bouman, J., Van Marion, J., & DeGraaf, D. “Connecting the Mind, Heart and Hands through Intentional Community at Calvin College,” Journal of College and Character, Volume VII, No. 6, February 2006.
  • Murphy, T.P. (editor). Universities in the Urban Crisis. Dunellen Publishing Company, Inc. New York. 1975.
  • Putnam, R. (2000).  Bowling alone:  The collapse and revival of American community.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.
  • Ringma, C.  (2000).  Dare to Journey with Henri Nouwen.  Colorado Springs, CO:  Pinion Books. 
  • Rozak, T.  (1969).  The Making of a Counter Culture.  Doubleday & Company, Inc.  Garden City, New York.
  • Strauss, W. & Howe, N.  (1991).  Generations:  The history of America’s future, 1584-2069.  New York:  Quill, William, Morrow. 
  • Trolander, J.A. (1987).  Professionalism and Social Change.  Columbia University Press. New York.

Case study contact

Jeffrey Bouman

Jeffrey Bouman

Director, Service-Learning Center
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  1. The following three paragraphs are adapted from my essay, “A Seamless Coat of Learning: Weaving Together Telos and Praxis through Committed Community Engagement,” which was written in autumn 2006 for the 20th Anniversary Essay Collection for Campus Compact, entitled Embedding Engagement in Higher Education, and found online.
  2. Much of the following is adapted (with permission of the authors) from the article “Connecting the Mind, Heart and Hands through Intentional Community at Calvin College,” published in the Journal of College and Character, in June 2005.
  3. The college had been sending students abroad for many years to Spain and other international locations, but Honduras was the first program to hire a Calvin faculty member to reside in country and run a program. The Honduras program offers a concentration in Spanish each fall, and a concentration in International Development each spring.