Students combine class with urban research

While most Yalies complete class projects in libraries poring over books and journal articles, a growing number of courses are allowing for a more hands-on approach.

These students will be completing projects through “Community Based Learning,” an offering now available in eight Yale classes, up from three last semester. Offered through Dwight Hall, CBL is designed to help Yalies and community organizations jointly meet their academic requirements and research needs, respectively.

The community organizations — including nonprofits and city agencies — identify research or analysis projects they need, and CBL matches the assignments to relevant courses at Yale. Student participants in the program complete the projects in consultation with their professors and partner organizations, often in lieu of a traditional final paper or project.

“[Yale students] are writing all sorts of research every semester that mostly never gets read,” said Gabriel Zucker, a co-coordinator of CBL. “The idea here is to take all this research effort and channel it in the local community where it will have an actual impact.”

CBL was first piloted in the fall of 2003 through a section of the course “New Haven and the Problem of Change in the American City.” According to the CBL website, positive responses from participating students and community groups prompted organizers to continue the program for the spring of 2004 in two classes: the college seminar “Welfare: Policy and Practice” and the lecture “Urban Poverty and Policy.” This spring, the eight courses that offer CBL projects include seminars and lectures in departments such as political science, architecture, African American studies and anthropology.

Zucker said the CBL projects can vary based on the individual needs of the partner organization. He added that this could include a part-time internship, a research project or an investigative task. Previous partners have included the New Haven Land Trust, NH POWer and the Tweed-New Haven Airport.

Gordon Geballe, a professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, taught a freshman seminar last year in which students conducted “hands-on” research, though Geballe said his seminar was only loosely tied with the CBL program. The seminar, titled “Urban Ecology with a Focus on New Haven,” used a multidisciplinary approach in discussing how cities work, Geballe said. At the time, the New Haven city government was in the process of drafting a sustainability plan, and Geballe’s students researched possible components of the plan in small groups, he said. Throughout the course, students met with businesses owners, city officials and Yale administrators to research potential sustainability initiatives such as greater waste recycling from small businesses.

Geballe said the CBL concept “worked naturally” in his course because students were “studying cities while living in New Haven.”

“In many science courses, students have lab work, or in many statistics courses, students will have real databases they use,” Geballe said. “I’m very supportive of courses constantly looking at how to relate what is being taught in the theoretical sense … to current events, real activities and real people.”

Only three Yalies participated in CBL projects last semester, but the two co-coordinators of the program said this was because most CBL courses were seminars. Zucker said this semester’s CBL course selection features several lectures including “Crime and Punishment” and “Introduction to Environmental History,” which will increase the number of students who can participate.

Students interviewed expressed mixed reception of their experiences in CBL course offerings.

Sinye Tang ’13 enrolled in the architecture seminar “Infrastructure: Politics and Design” last semester and participated in the CBL project option, conducting a study for the New Haven Land Trust titled “The Impact of Urban Farms on New Haven Community Safety and Property Values.” She had also completed a CBL project for a class last year.

“I had an awesome time — I definitely love the program,” Tang said. “It’s really cool to be able to apply the things that you are learning in class to a practical end and have a real impact on the local community.”

Jimmy Murphy ’13, who was enrolled in the same architecture seminar as Tang, said that while the CBL projects seemed very rewarding, the tasks appeared significantly more time-consuming than a traditional final project and thus failed to attract large numbers of participants.

The CBL program is currently compiling a journal called “Enact: The Yale Journal of Applied Community Research” to publicize the work students do for CBL projects.

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