Education Through Engagement

Trinity’s Community Learning Initiative integrates academic coursework with hands-on projects in Hartford.

In an abandoned Hartford lot, overgrown with crabgrass and urban debris, six Trinity juniors and seniors are digging 18 tiny holes.
The students—all chemistry majors—are members of Professor David Henderson’s “Instrumental Analysis” class. Back in the lab, the students will analyze the soil samples for toxic heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, chromium, and lead, pollutants that can cause serious developmental problems in young children. The test results will help the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (SINA) decide if it should move forward with a low-income housing development on the site.
For 15 years, Trinity students across nearly every academic department have put their academic skills to work for Hartford organizations as part of the Community Learning Initiative (CLI). Here are just a few current examples:
  • The “Islam in America” class takes oral histories of Muslim community leaders in Hartford and New Haven, integrating their personal stories into research papers on the Muslim-American experience.
  • Biology students in a “Food for Thought” seminar study global food issues—access, affordability, and nutrition—on a local level by working with Hartford food banks.
  • Theater and dance students work with local third-graders to help them choreograph their “stories,” which are then showcased at a much-anticipated annual performance on the Trinity campus.
For Henderson’s chemistry students, the soil analysis project fits perfectly with the mission of the course, which is to teach the young scientists how to formulate a question, select the instrument to use, develop a test method, conduct the analysis and present the results. In the lab, students use a powerful acid to “digest” the soil before transferring the samples to something called an inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometer, a $100,000 instrument that looks like a giant copy machine.
Henderson, a 33-year Trinity professor who founded the Interdisciplinary Science Program, says a project and partnership like this would be impossible without the College’s consistent and generous support of the sciences.
“In the course of the lab, the students use eight major instruments ranging in value from $10,000 to $300,000,” says Henderson, who called the Trinity chemistry department the “best equipped” of all of the colleges in the region, big or small. “I’ve had people from Yale, UMass, and UConn come here to do work because we have instruments that either they didn’t have or they couldn’t get access to.”
Trinity currently works with more than 80 community organizations to develop curriculum-integrated CLI projects. The chief liaison between professors and neighborhood nonprofits is Anne Lundberg in the Center for Urban and Global Studies (CUGS). Henderson is amazed at the efficiency of the system.
“All I had to do was send Anne an e-mail telling her we were looking for a community partner, and she got back to me in a few days with the SINA connection,” says Henderson, whose classes have also worked with the Knox Parks Foundation and the Farmington River Watershed Association, measuring industrial pollution levels in the Park River.
Not only do CLI projects directly benefit the community, says Henderson, but they provide invaluable real-world scientific experience for Trinity students.
“The students tend to do their best work of the semester on these projects,” he says. “They absolutely spend more time and energy on the CLI project than if it was just another required lab.”
Learn more about our commitment to experiential learning and community outreach at the Center for Urban and Global Studies.