Learning by doing benefits students and the community

December, 2012

David Godbout (left) and Wayne Decotis (center), of the Spectacle Pond Association meet with Thad Guldbrandsen at the spillway of Spectacle Pond. Jon Gilbert Fox photo.

by Emilie Coulter

Thad Guldbrandsen is on a quest. The newly appointed vice provost for research and engagement believes the traditional three-part mission of most universities—research, service, and teaching—is a good one. But he says the three parts, usually compartmentalized, should be integrated into one holistic approach.

“Community service is a part of the culture at PSU,” he says. “We want students to be engaged with volunteerism, to have that civic education in which they’re contributing to the community.” But, he adds, there’s a difference between community service and service learning: “It’s also important to have service learning opportunities in which students are learning by doing, becoming involved with community service and research in a much more reflective and academically rigorous way. That’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do with blending research, service, and learning.”

Hired to advance the University’s strategic goal of increasing institutional commitment to regional partnerships, Guldbrandsen says the University is ready to raise the bar with service learning and undergraduate research. “It’s not about changing our values or commitments or priorities,” he says. “These are priorities that have been in place all along.”

Learning by doing
“We know from the latest neuroscience of learning that the person who does the work does the learning,” says Guldbrandsen. “If a professor does a lot of work to prepare a great lecture and then stands up in front while the students just sit there passively trying to take it in, well, then the professor learns a lot.” He is convinced that the more faculty engage students, the deeper the students’ learning experience will be.

Thad Guldbrandsen (center), Mark Okrant (green cap), and students of their Community Research Experience course, along with Richard Mauser (blue cap) and Richard House (far right), and other members of the nonprofit Union Village Community Association and the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, are working to determine the environmental, economic, and social impact of repairing and reviving the historic Drew Mill Dam in Union Village, Wakefield. John Anderson photo.

At PSU, faculty members regularly provide students with research and engagement opportunities that complement what they are learning in class. For example, Professor of Meteorology Jim Koermer’s students have helped develop a prototype forecasting system used by US Air Force weather personnel for forecaster training, support planning, and operational decision making.  Professor of Biology Chris Chabot’s students have conducted field and lab research on horseshoe crabs to help gain a better understanding of the human biological clock. Professor of Athletic Training and Sports Medicine Marjorie King’s students’ National Institutes of Health-funded work helps senior citizens improve their balance to prevent falls. Interim Director of the Center for Rural Partnerships (CfRP) Ben Amsden’s students work in the community to discover how ecological discourse is put to practice in the region in such settings as a scientific research station, a nonprofit conservation organization, and a permaculture farm. The list goes on and on.

In courses such as the interdisciplinary Community Research Experience, students working under faculty direction take jobs on behalf of external “clients.” These clients may be community organizations, nonprofits, businesses, or government agencies that need help with research or consulting, such as marketing or education plans. The students come from different majors to work together in teams that act as both a problem-solving think tank and a consulting firm.

Recent projects have included conducting a rural impact assessment of a proposed North Country film festival, creating educational content based on Tamworth’s Remick Country Doctor Museum and Farm’s forest management plan, and determining the environmental, economic, and social impact of draining Newfound watershed’s Spectacle Pond, which was posing a threat to downstream regions.

With projects like these, Guldbrandsen says, “students are able to deepen and apply their learning, establish their professional portfolios, and begin to make professional contacts that can launch them in their careers.”

Driven by outcome
In his work with student research and service learning, Amsden always seeks impact. “You can apply a solution to anything,” he says. “But whether or not it works, or creates some kind of change, that’s what I look for. How is the region better off or stronger because of the students and their experiences here?”

The results of the students’ work sometimes extend even beyond the expected outcome of resolving client concerns. In the case of the Spectacle Pond project, for example, a century-old dam had grown decrepit and dangerous. Because the private owners were unable to come to an agreement with a community association about paying for repairs to bring the dam up to safety standards, the New Hampshire Division of Environmental Services (DES) planned to breach the dam and potentially drain the pond to protect downstream areas at risk. A number of citizens of the region were concerned about the impact this breach would have, and sought the assistance of the CfRP to prepare an assessment.

Community Research Experience students Kevin Ford (left) and Zak Brohinsky (right) and Spectacle Pond Association representative David Godbout (center), explore possibilities for the future of Spectacle Pond.

Community Research Experience students mapped out the area, examined different scenarios, and looked at the social and environmental significance on loons, fishing, water quality, and the larger watershed. They evaluated the economic impact on the towns of Groton and Hebron in terms of their tax base. The information was prepared in a report presented by the students. After the presentation, all the involved parties came together in a unified decision to save the dam. They garnered legislative backing and support from nonprofit organizations, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and fixed the dam. Not only was the problem solved, but the community, once divided, was reunited.

Student and faculty research also has a profound impact on student learning. “At the heart and soul of this institution is undergraduate education,” Guldbrandsen says. “So when we talk about research, there has to be a very strong emphasis on undergraduate research and how students are impacted directly from the kind of research that the faculty do, the staff do, and that they themselves do … In an age when we’re doing more and more online, this work becomes ever more important. Students need to be able to get their hands dirty.”

Rising to the occasion
Among undergraduates who actively participate in research and service learning at PSU, many go on to acquire advanced degrees and/or move into rewarding careers in their chosen fields. In keeping with the PSU culture, Guldbrandsen, Amsden, and other faculty recognize that students who are taken seriously and invested with real responsibility perform to a high standard, understanding that their work has consequences beyond their GPA. Guldbrandsen is clear in his expectations for students: “There’s a big commitment here. You’re representing yourself, you’re representing CfRP, and you’re representing the institution. People are counting on you.”

Amsden believes the skills he and other faculty teach in PSU’s culture of service learning form the foundation for life learning: “Presenting yourself professionally with people in the region, representing the University or department or yourself, asking questions and listening to people—those are universal,” he says.

Drew Mill Dam was named on of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance's "Seven to Save" endangered historic structures. Students in the fall 2012 Community Research Experience course work with community members to determine how best to preserve these structures. John Anderson photo.

Working smarter
According to Amsden, projects like the Community Research Experience “give students a good look at how within a region there are different responses to what’s essentially the same issue: how do people interact with the environment around them, and how do their interactions with each other influence their response to environmental problems, issues, and needs?” The key is the context. Getting students into the field provides them with more than an education; it gives them an experience. “Any time you can help a student see how things work outside the classroom,” Amsden says, “it’s a good opportunity for them.” Whether in environmental studies, business, science, or any other program, this context and perspective gives students a head start in their future careers.

The notion of integrating research, community service, and learning makes good sense in PSU’s culture, where students have abundant access to faculty members and to experiential learning opportunities. Guldbrandsen sees the graceful shift from a discrete focus on these three qualities of education to a blending that builds on their collective strengths: “What we’re really starting to see now is that the work is better supported, it’s better reflected, it’s more academically rigorous, and it’s more regionally engaged. We’re working smarter. The campus is becoming more connected to our broader region, and that creates so many opportunities for students.”





  1. Hi,

    I just stumbled into your article and was happy to know that PSU is giving importance to the students today how to give more awareness,service,education and research regarding about our nature and environment.Having the goal and insight to make better citizens for the future is I must say its thumbs-up for you guys.More power to PSU and the people behind it.

  2. Awesome article. I hope that all universities follow suit.

  3. Really good to see that your are getting the young adults involved in the community.

  4. learning by doing better than learning by theory i like this articel

  5. This is a great postitive article, its good to see PSU students and faculity give back to the community. Hopefully this would inspire others to do the same.

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