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Learning from Experience

By Julie Riddle, '92

Danny Cossey, '16, listens to 101-year-old Irene Kinnier, a resident of Rockwood at Hawthorne. "There are so many stories and perspectives on history and life that will soon be forgotten," Cossey says. "Writing them down is the best way to make what people achieved, felt, thought and experienced mean something to the generations after them."

When Whitworth professors integrate academic instruction with outside experience -- when the "real world" becomes an extension of the classroom -- the effects on students can be life-changing, and the effects on academic departments can be numbers-shifting.

Such was the case for Associate Professor of English Casey Andrews, who lost an English major to the School of Education when the student, while tutoring children in a homework club as part of Andrews' Honors Reading Literature class, discovered she loved working with kids and had a knack for teaching. "She had an entire vocational change," Andrews says, "because she realized she could share her advanced learning with less-advanced students."

Andrews' out-of-class assignments -- tutoring at-risk children in an after-school program, helping retirement-community residents create a living-history project -- are part of the abundant experiential learning opportunities Whitworth offers students. Experiential learning encompasses out-of-class projects, as well as internships and practicums, service-learning (academic instruction integrated with community service), and study abroad.

Each experience is designed to foster an active, collaborative learning environment through which students achieve identified strategic objectives and outcomes. Structured reflection -- journaling, multi media blogging, class discussions, presentations and writing assignments -- is the synthesizing agent that transforms students' hands-on activity into mind-and-heart growth.

A key objective of Whitworth 2021, the university's 10-year vision and strategic plan, is for the institution to expand experiential learning opportunities for students to serve the community, participate in off-campus initiatives, and apply their educational skills in workplace settings.

"Experiential learning is central to the kind of liberal arts education we value at Whitworth," says Noelle Wiersma, '90, dean of Whitworth's new College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. "As students travel, work, and serve alongside others, the knowledge they acquire in the classroom springs to life. Intellectual theories are tested. Assumptions are challenged. Questions are answered and new questions are raised. Students gain a deeper, more authentic understanding of who they are and of their vocational place in the world."

David Milliken (center), Hutton Settlement campus director, describes a faulty hydraulic pool-cover system to Engineering in Society students.

Following are three Whitworth classes whose experiential-learning components stretch students' minds, expand their hearts, and shape their futures.

Engineering in Society

On a mild October afternoon, nine Engineering in Society students and Assistant Professor of Physics Markus Ong gathered at the historic Hutton Settlement, in northeast Spokane, where they met with David Milliken, director of the 319-acre campus. Milliken told the students about the settlement's history and its mission to provide a safe, healthy environment to children in need of a long-term alternative home; he then guided the group on a tour of the facilities.

Experiential learning at Whitworth, by the numbers*
  • Students who study abroad: 70 percent
  • Students who engage in service-learning: 90 percent-plus
    > Academic departments that incorporate service-learning: 100 percent
  • Of the 583 members of the Class of 2012, nearly 50 percent completed an internship, practicum, or student-teaching experience.
*traditional undergraduate students

Along the way he pointed out the challenges of operating and maintaining century-old brick buildings. Faulty wiring systems. Poor insulation. Heat sucked from original boilers right up the chimneys. Third-floor dorm rooms that become sweatboxes in summer and freezers in winter. And then there's the confounding swimming-pool cover that operates -- or doesn't -- according to the inclinations of a temperamental hydraulic system. "That thing has been a thorn in our side for years," Milliken says.

"We have a full inspection every three years, and we're always trying to find creative solutions to keep everything up to code." Ideally, Milliken says, those solutions are also energy efficient. "It not only saves money, but it's the right thing to do."

That's where Ong's freshman honors students come in. After their initial site visit, the students will return to Hutton on their own to conduct energy audits. Back at Whitworth, they'll work in teams, developing and testing models to devise energy-efficient retrofit solutions and tackling the challenge of the pesky pool cover.

"The students will have to consider their client's requirements and constraints," says Ong, who joined the Whitworth physics faculty in 2010. "They will need to generate several alternatives, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each, and make recommendations to the client."

The proposals the students will write and then present to Milliken at the end of the semester are an important element of the experiential-learning assignment Ong designed.

"Being an engineer is not just about being good at math or finding clever solutions," Ong says. "It requires communication -- you have to be able to speak and write well to convince the client, who may not have a technical background, that you have the best solution."

Ong proposed the Engineering in Society class last spring as part of Whitworth's new George F. Whitworth Honors Program, which launched this fall and incorporates an intensive focus on experiential learning and real-world application of course content. One of Ong's goals with the Hutton project is for his students to discover the positive impact engineers can have on society.

"I want the students to experience how their work can make a difference in their community," Ong says. "If we do a good job, we'll provide Hutton Settlement with ideas that can make a difference for years to come."

(L-R): Garrett Capaccioli, '15, Alec Moore, '16, and Gabby Perez, '14, make bones from newspaper and plaster wrap for the One Million Bones project.

Community Arts in Practice

For their first assignment this fall, students in the Community Arts in Practice class designed and led two interactive projects in one of Spokane's lowest-income neighborhoods at the opening for the inaugural Festival of the Arts in West Central. The event took place at Spokane's Salem Lutheran Church, which filled its sanctuary and gym with works by local artists. When the evening began, the students quickly encountered one of the challenges the class presents: learning to focus on relational outcomes rather than finished-project outcomes.

"We found ourselves in a rather uncomfortable place," says Gabby Perez, '14. "My group had gotten a huge display ready to make a giant mobile, and we had a room full of people who didn't give it a second glance." Perez's group had expected a lot of families to attend the opening, and they created a project geared toward children. "The crowd was mostly senior citizens," she says. "They weren't exactly fighting over our craft table."

As the evening progressed, community members trickled to the craft station and contributed to the project, and the students ventured from their table and mingled with the crowd of strangers. "Even though the night didn't go exactly as I had thought it would, it ended up being a great experience," Perez says. "I got to talk to so many different artists and people from the community. I learned about West Central, and, more importantly, about the individuals who call it home."

Throughout the fall semester, students taking the upper-division Community Arts in Practice class fan out across Spokane and work with nonprofit groups, businesses and churches to create art with and for the community. "The premise of the class is to build community and connection through creative expression," says Whitworth Assistant Professor of Art Katie Creyts, who joined Whitworth in 2008 and received the university's Innovative Teaching Award in 2011. Creyts also assigns students to visit art galleries and museums, and attend exhibit openings and artist lectures.

"What makes this course an interesting challenge is that there is an element of the unknown in community projects," Creyts says. "I've found that this is the place where transformation and growth occur."

(L-R): Megan Finch, '15, Kellen Pacheco, '12, and Jessie Cannon, '14, paint a mural in San Rafael, Costa Rica. Bre Taylor, '14, who took Whitworth's Community Arts in Practice class in fall 2011, designed and directed the mural project for a new children's park during her spring 2012 semester at Whitworth's Costa Rica Center. "The class equipped me with the skills, knowledge and confidence to coordinate a community art project -- in a foreign country and language -- to successful completion," Taylor says. "The community members' gratitude showed that we had created something valuable that would bring people together."

Students document each activity with a digital camera, sketchbook and notebook, and then share their experiences on a blog the class creates and maintains. Through the blog, students develop critical thinking, writing and communication skills by describing and analyzing the community project they led or event they attended; evaluating its impact on the community; exploring their own response to the experience; and composing a question to generate discussion.

The community-art projects vary each year, based on the students' interests and the agencies that need help. This fall students worked at Terrain, a one-night extravaganza showcasing Spokane's emerging artists and musicians. Students also participated in One Million Bones, a worldwide art movement raising awareness of and support for victims of ongoing genocides and humanitarian crises. Whitworth students publicized and led a bone-making workshop on campus, and organized an exhibit of the bones at Saranac Art Projects, in Spokane. The bones will travel to Washington, D.C., for an installation at the National Mall.

Along with learning to be flexible about outcomes, to problem-solve, and to engage diverse communities, students learn to think critically about the relationship between art, community and culture; to create a project proposal and communicate clearly what each agency's needs are; and to design and implement an art project for a specific demographic.

"When the class ends," Creyts says, "students have the wherewithal to approach organizations and facilitate collaborative community-arts projects in their home communities or abroad."

To view the fall 2012 Community Arts in Practice blog, visit communityartsinpractice.blogspot.com.

Through experiential learning, Whitworth students...
  • develop professional skills and discern vocational interests
  • explore career options and make job-networking contacts
  • increase their marketability to prospective employers
  • learn to synthesize diverse ideas and to problem-solve
  • strengthen analytical- and critical-thinking skills
  • strengthen written and verbal communication skills
  • acquire an ethic of service and civic responsibility
  • gain a broader perspective and deeper understanding of diverse cultures and complex issues
  • become the next generation of leaders and innovators who will create positive change in the world

(R-L): Taylor (Lamoreaux) Taylor, '12, and an IRS federal agent arrest an embezzler (Visiting Instructor of Business Management Eric Sartell, '94).

Occupational Fraud & Abuse

Whitworth's Occupational Fraud & Abuse class isn't a typical accounting course. In addition to studying the theoretical nature of fraud, evaluating schemes, and exploring the legal implications for companies, students team up with federal law-enforcement agents to investigate fraud cases.

During a daylong simulation, Whitworth students canvas campus, searching trashcans for incriminating documents, poring over fake bank records and tax returns, and interrogating suspects and interviewing victims (gamblers, bartenders, bookkeepers and business owners played by Whitworth faculty and staff). After collecting and analyzing evidence, students don bulletproof vests, plastic guns and handcuffs to serve search warrants and make arrests.

The Jan Term class is taught by Associate Professor of Accounting Heather Rogers, whose areas of specialization include fraud investigation and forensic accounting. Rogers serves as an educator representative for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners' Spokane and national chapters.

Rogers brings the agents to Whitworth through the Adrian Project, an IRS recruitment program that provides students with exposure to alternative accounting careers. Coordinated by Silvia Reyes, an IRS special agent in Seattle, participating agencies have included the FBI, the Spokane Police Department, and the Gaming Commission. Rogers first teamed with the Adrian Project in 2010, making Whitworth the first school in the Pacific Northwest to participate in the program.

During Jan Term 2012, five federal agents with the IRS' Criminal Investigation Division described to students a variety of situations they might face on the job, demonstrated defensive tactics on a mat, and displayed some of the equipment investigators use. The students were then divided into groups, each of which investigated a mock crime scenario involving tax evasion, embezzlement or fraud.

"Students loved the experience of working as fraud investigators," says Rogers, who has taught in Whitworth's School of Global Commerce & Management since 2005. "The application of tools and concepts learned in the classroom to real fraud cases provides them with experiential learning that is both challenging and exciting."

After the simulation, many of the students expressed an interest in pursuing a career in fraud prevention and detection.

"Applying forensic accounting skills with real IRS agents taught me just how open the field of accounting is," says accounting major Marisa Shumake, '13. "To know that criminal investigation teams need accountants to handle cases of fraud and embezzlement taught me that I have plenty of options with what I want to do with my accounting knowledge after college."

Adapted from an online spotlight story written by Andrea Idso, '12

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