Community Learning Program Engages Students in Experiential Research

Topics range from Arts Intervention in Prison to Residential Zoning Policy

HARTFORD, CT, December 20, 2012 – Trinity’s Community Learning (CLI) Research Colloquium is designed to do what virtually no other program or class does: team up students with Hartford-area organizations to do groundbreaking research that can shed light on issues of major importance to the Greater Hartford region and beyond.

Although each of the students is supervised by a faculty member, the colloquium takes them out of their comfort zone by putting them in non-traditional research settings – whether the York Correctional Institution for Women, Hartford public schools or the independent Steppingstone Academy.

At a festive and informative event last week, the capstone of a semester’s work, five community-based student research projects were presented for all to see in the Social Science Center. The students, or research fellows as they are called, were there to discuss their findings and were joined by their faculty advisers and community partners. In the spring, four additional fellows will present the results of their yearlong projects.

Also in attendance at the December 11 event were Carol Clark, associate professor of economics and Community Learning Initiative Faculty Coordinator, and Anne Lundberg, director of urban programs and fellowships. The CLI Research Fellows program is funded in 2012-13 by a grant from the Mellon Foundation and by the Center for Urban and Global Studies.

The research topics are seemingly boundless so long as the projects themselves meet rigorous academic standards. They may be part of a course, internship, independent study or senior thesis. The fellows earn 0.5 credits for their participation in the colloquium and receive a small expense grant to help in conducting their research.

“The Community Learning Research Colloquium challenges students to develop a general set of research skills that can be used in the future: from what it means to identify a researchable question, to communicating in clear language the significance of their research to their intended audience, to defending their research method,” said Clark. “Moreover, the interdisciplinary nature of the colloquium offers students the opportunity to exchange ideas with faculty from several different disciplines and to learn from and support one another in a common endeavor. The ‘community-based’ component of the program asks students to collaborate with non-traditional partners -- experts outside the college walls -- in applied research, where the results can have immediate application. And, lastly, the program encourages students to continue to be active, participatory citizens wherever they choose to live and whatever they choose to do after graduation.”

The projects that were on display recently included:

  • “Finding Voice, Supporting Process: The Collaboration between Teaching Artists and Social Workers in an Arts Intervention Program with Populations Affected by Incarceration.” The student researcher was Anne Arnzen ’14; the faculty sponsor was Judy Dworin, professor of theater and dance; and the community partner was The Judy Dworin Performance Project/Bridging Boundaries Program.
  • “Zoned Out: How Residential Zoning Policy and Housing are Linked to Schooling in Connecticut.” The student researcher was Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens ’13; the faculty sponsor was Jack Dougherty, associate professor of educational studies; and the community partner was the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.
  • “The Experiences of Steppingstone Scholars: Implications for Developing a Mentoring Program.” The student researcher was Gracie Phillips ’13; the faculty sponsors were Dina Anselmi, associate professor of psychology, and Laura Holt, assistant professor of psychology; and the community partner was the Steppingstone Academy of Hartford.
  • “Who Stays? Who Leaves? An Analysis of Higher-Achieving Hartford Public School Students.” The student researchers were Evan Sternberg ’13, and Ben Rudy ’13; the faculty sponsor was Diane Zannoni, G. Fox and Company Professor of Economics; and the community partner was Achieve Hartford!
  • “Social Experiences of Steppingstone Scholars in Independent School Environments.” The student researcher was Genevieve Uslander ’13; the faculty sponsor was Andrea Dyrness, associate professor of educational studies; and the community partner was the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation.

At the beginning of the semester, the fellows had to identify their research question, and then systematically conduct their research in order to come up with one or more conclusions; some were surprising while others confirmed the students’ working hypotheses. But each of the students seemed energized and enthusiastic with regard to their work. The students also recorded their observations as blog entries. For more information about the program, and to view the students’ comments, please visit: http://commons.trincoll.edu/cli-research/category/reflections/.

Arnzen, who, as a junior, is planning a semester in Cape Town, South Africa, looking at how storytelling and community can be used as a vehicle for healing, said she found that the same principles could be applied to the population of the York prison for women. Essentially, she discovered that “it can be highly beneficial for teaching artists to collaborate with social workers when initiating arts interventions in populations affected by incarceration.”  

On the other hand, Sternberg’s research seemed to debunk the theory that high-achieving students tend to leave Hartford public schools for suburban and/or private schools. “We concluded that’s false,” said Sternberg, who worked with Rudy. "Among the two groups of students -- those who leave and those who remain in the Hartford Public School System -- high achievers appear in the same proportion."

Darby-Hudgens, who is continuing her research during the spring semester, looked at zoning patterns in the 166 cities and towns in Connecticut to see if restrictive zoning practices correlate with school performance. In fact, she said, they do.

“The findings suggest that restrictive residential zoning practices that limit the development of economically diverse housing correlate with school district performance: in general, the less restrictive the municipal zoning practice, the lower the school district performance on state exams.” Her preliminary conclusion is that zoning patterns contribute to “the economic segregation of Connecticut public schools and arguably to the significant difference in performance among public schools.”

Uslander undertook her project because of the lack of documentation on the social hurdles that minorities face in independent schools and the shortage of social programming to support those students. Having done 15 interviews with students who graduated from the Steppingstone Academy (SAH), Uslander found that while they praised the academic rigor and preparedness, they faced significant challenges related to racial and class isolation in social situations. The solution, she suggested, “is that blacks and Latinos would benefit from a mentoring program to mitigate the social hurdles they experience in independent schools.”

Phillips also examined the challenges facing SAH students, such as tokenism and social isolation, in the predominantly white, elite environment of independent schools. What she found was instructive, though not surprising: that minority students reported feeling the most prepared for the academics and least prepared for the transition from home life to school.  She sought input from independent school directors, SAH students, and administrators at a number of preparatory programs at the middle school level deemed “successful” by the SAH Dean of Programs. Her analysis offered both a comprehensive picture of SAH students’ experience in independent schools and several suggestions for an effective mentoring program at SAH, starting in the preparatory stage of the program and continuing through students’ experience of independent school life.

Trinity’s Community Learning Initiative, of which the Research Fellows Program is a part, was launched in the fall of 1995. The principal goal of CLI is to foster collaborations between college students and many kinds of local partners outside of the College. These collaborations deepen students’ abilities to retain, comprehend, apply, synthesize, and evaluate their course learning, while at the same time, share learning and knowledge with others in the Hartford community. 

Since that time, CLI has grown, with the support and commitment of the College, to consistently attract more than 50 percent of the student body and offer courses in almost all of Trinity’s academic departments and at all levels of study, from first-year seminars, to intermediate and advanced major courses, to senior capstone seminars. Students have found that participation in a CLI course enhances their understanding of the course material and their awareness of the community in which they live and study for four years. “It’s a natural way to connect with people you might not meet otherwise, develop a sense of civic responsibility, and gain the satisfaction of having a hand in creating solutions.”


Pictured on the home page is Anne Arnzen ’14, one of  six students who presented community-based research projects at the colloquium.