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American Today



Community Building

By Adrienne Frank

The transition from high school to college can be difficult. Freshmen must cultivate new friendships and adapt to life without mom and dad—all while managing a full course load.

AU’s new learning communities program helps ease that transition by offering students a base from which to explore the wider university, and the greater Washington community. From learning communities centered around media to politics to sustainability, the program helps students expand their horizons and make the most of their AU experience.

This semester’s program features eight courses across five learning communities.

  • EXPLORATIONS | non-credit residential experience
  • THE GREEN COMMUNITY | Seminar In Environmental Issues, Kiho Kim (CAS)
  • THE HISTORY AND PRACTICE OF SCIENCE | Science And Society, Andrew Lewis (CAS) | Great Experiments In Biology, Chris Tudge (CAS)
  • GLOBAL MEDIA, GLOBAL POLITICS | World Politics Youngshik Bong (SIS) | Understanding Media Rick Rockwell (SOC)
  • CRIME AND THE MEDIA | Introduction To Systems Of Justice, Lynn Addington (SPA) | Understanding Media Rick Stack (SOC)

New program brings world into the classroom, takes class into the world

Freshman Nora Morse came to AU from Alaska craving a new adventure. And as one of about 100 students in the learning communities program, begun this fall as an outgrowth of the tremendously successful University College, that’s exactly what she got.

Over the last four months, Morse and her 15 classmates in the Crime and the Media program have explored the Newseum, taken a walking tour of the District’s police agencies, and visited the Supreme Court—twice. They’ve taken seminars with two of AU’s most innovative and well-connected faculty and developed friendships that Morse says “will last through college and beyond.”

“This has been an amazing experience,” she continues. “My only complaint is that it’s ending too soon.”

Learning communities are an exciting new teaching opportunity in higher education. Students with a common interest, from politics to sustainability, are linked in a group, led by a professor whose goal is to facilitate explorations, debate, and collaboration.

Learning extends well beyond the classroom as well. Each community is assigned a community associate—an upperclassmen who plans field trips, arranges service projects, and encourages participants to meet with experts in the field of study.

Patrick Jackson, School of International Service professor and director of General Education, sees learning communities as serving two functions. First, “we want students to gain a sense of intellectual excitement; we want them to come away with a real passion for the things they’ve been exploring.”

Second, Jackson wants students to glean “a better sense of how to learn.”

“Universities spend so much time teaching content. Learning has to be nurtured—not produced,” he explains.

Students encouraged to ‘pick each others brains’

AU’s learning communities project is an extension of the University College, which launched in 2005 and now features 13 offerings. Unlike the year-long University College program, learning communities are only offered in the fall. “We experimented with lots of different models,” says Jackson, “It really was a learning experience for us, as well.”

Next year’s communities will be based on the paired class model, in which grouped students take two classes together, often in different colleges. Depending on faculty interest, Jackson also hopes to add a new offering and incorporate community-based research into the curriculum.

The School of Communication’s Rick Stack co-taught the Crime and the Media program and was delighted to watch a group of 16 strangers form a “community of interest” over the last 16 weeks.

“Outside of the classroom, they’re hosting potlucks and going to museums and movies together,” he says. “They’re a bright group of students, and I know they’re picking each others brains for all it’s worth.”