NAU becoming national model for lessons in community building

 Students seek an education at Northern Arizona University to expand their career opportunities, but they also may discover the gateway to becoming more informed and involved citizens.

Consider the idea of NAU students collaborating with grade school and high school students on projects such as community gardens, or cultivating partnerships with local groups to improve life in the community by raising money for the Murdoch Center.

These actions build upon the foundation of classroom learning, regardless of the discipline, because these are college students who are fully engaged in the community and taking responsibility for its well-being.

A rapidly growing network of NAU student groups, graduate student mentors and faculty is setting a national example of how higher education can revitalize the practice of citizenship. For that accomplishment, the university has earned some well-deserved recognition.

On Tuesday, Jan. 10, some of the country’s most influential educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will participate in a day of panel discussions and breakout sessions hosted at the White House. NAU’s success will be highlighted at the event, which will be live-streamed at beginning at noon Arizona time.

“This is literally about people building classic relationships based on mutual interests,” said Blase Scarnati, director of the First Year Seminar Program and Global Learning. “It’s about communities, and families and children—about asking how we as citizens can move back into the space our grandparents occupied and build our democratic capacities.”

Scarnati and Romand Coles, the Frances B. McAllister chair and director of Community, Culture and Environment, have been building on a collaboration that began more than three years ago when Coles first arrived at NAU. Said Coles, “We’re really trying to connect as a thread civic education through a whole host of disciplines and interdisciplinary work.”

The primary vehicle has been NAU’s community action research teams. Coles explained how Master’s of Sustainability students facilitated action research teams related to different aspects of scholarly materials in first-year seminars, with topics such as water, energy, alternative food systems and education.

Seven original teams have multiplied into more than 20. One team piloted public achievement projects with students at Killip Elementary; now NAU students are working with Kinsey Elementary and interacting with Flagstaff High School students in the Kinlani dorm.

The teams have held a symposium at the end of each semester, and the most recent in December featured more than 250 student presenters. They gathered on campus at the Health and Learning Center’s Green Scene Café, itself the outgrowth of an action research team project.

“It was impressive for first-time NAU freshmen,” Coles said. “They were engaged, they were thinking. What you saw was a sense of ownership of their own education. I think this is a generation that wants to be involved.”

Yet as Coles and Scarnati are quick to point out, what’s happening at NAU is much bigger than just the action research teams or their own individual programs. The civic engagement picture is not complete without a $1 million National Science Foundation grant, participation in the leadership of the American Commonwealth Partnership (a movement of universities and colleges focusing on the creation of undergraduate students’ civic capacities) and Coles’ and Scarnati’s involvement with the Kettering Foundation and one of its collaborators, Harry Boyte.

Phase I of the NSF Climate Science and Climate Engagement Curriculum, awarded to 15 institutions around the country, has helped NAU deliver science education paired with citizen engagement to Native and rural students across the Colorado Plateau. NAU’s Jane Marks, biology professor and principal investigator for the project, plans to apply in March for Phase II, in which up to $10 million will be awarded to as many as nine of the 15 Phase I participants.

Kettering—a self-described “non-partisan research organization”—comes into play via Coles’s collaborative work with Boyte over the past 15 years. Boyte, a prominent figure in the theory and practice of civic engagement, attended NAU’s recent symposium and addressed faculty on “Civic Agency: The Publicness of Public Universities.”

As Scarnati put it, “Our networking has been successful because we’re hooking in with others doing successful work. We’ve been able to share our model, and we’re doing this bigger, deeper and more comprehensively than anyone else.”

Now NAU will share that model at the White House, although Scarnati notes that the agenda at that event takes a forward-looking approach.

“The Department of Education is focused on what we can do in the future, not just what we’re doing now,” Scarnati said. “Our participation is not just an example, but a starting point for where we can go.”