The open, sunlit workspace at Trinity College’s downtown campus at 10 Constitution Plaza serves as the perfect gathering place for teams of students, faculty, and community members working together in the Liberal Arts Action Lab—an educational partnership between Trinity and Capital Community College—to research some of the biggest challenges facing the city of Hartford and to develop possible solutions.
Inside the glass-walled building on the plaza in the capital city’s central business district, team members have access to flexible office and meeting spaces, along with technology that is adaptable and portable, and IdeaPaint walls that function as giant dry-erase canvases. The new space downtown was designed to foster collaboration and nurture creativity, in part to help prepare students for the environment in which they may work, since Trinity students are more likely than their peers to work in start-ups and small businesses after graduation, according to a recent survey.
The Action Lab—which debuted in January 2018—connects faculty members, staff members, and students from Trinity and Capital with community partners, which include neighborhood groups, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and similar bodies. Each semester-long project addresses an issue of importance to the city. During the first two semesters, Action Lab projects have included Parent Engagement, Eviction, PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) Messaging, Home Ownership, Food Sustainability, and more. (To see details about all of the projects from the spring 2018 and fall 2018 semesters, click here.)
The goals of the Action Lab are to strengthen the city and its role in the region, spark social innovation, and support civic engagement and sustainability. “I think that making research useful is very important, and it helps students when they can see the impact their research is having on the outside world,” said Action Lab Director Megan Brown. “While the students are getting exposure to the city, which gets them to care about Hartford in some new ways, they are learning about how to do high-quality research and work with community partners.” The proposals for projects come directly from the community partners. “We want to work on the projects that are most important to the city,” Brown said. A board of Hartford-area residents reviews the proposals and helps select projects to pursue.
During the semester, students from Trinity and Capital take two courses together at the Action Lab. “One is a research methods course where we talk about how you actually do this kind of engaged research, how you make research useful, how you answer questions about the world and solve problems,” Brown said. “The other course is their Hartford research project, where they are working in their teams, oftentimes directly with their community partners.”
The Action Lab is establishing partnerships outside of the semester-long projects, as well. In spring 2018, the nonprofit Connecticut Data Collaborative announced that it would begin leasing office space at 10 Constitution Plaza and work with the Action Lab to continue helping community organizations and state and city agencies to use public data to improve their planning and decision-making. The Action Lab and the Connecticut Data Collaborative have together received a 500 Cities Grant funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to research connections between housing conditions and health in local neighborhoods, among other goals involving the use of public health data.
The concept of the Liberal Arts Action Lab was developed by Tim Cresswell, Trinity’s dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, as a way demonstrate that there are no boundaries between a liberal arts education and applied knowledge. “The Liberal Arts Action Lab will help Trinity to lead the way in reconnecting liberal arts to real-world problems, both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Cresswell.
Students are encouraged to travel to the downtown campus using their Bantam Bus Pass, which offers unlimited free rides on the CT Transit bus system. Trinity public policy and law major Max Eichner ’20, who spent the spring 2018 semester working on the PILOT Messaging project, took the bus from the main campus to the Action Lab for classes. “It was nice to navigate my way around the city and explore Hartford more than I would otherwise. It’s an experience I would encourage other students to do,” Eichner said. “The Action Lab is a state-of-the-art space with touchscreen TVs, offices where people can meet, and walls to write on with erasable markers. It’s a building I feel very fortunate to go into, which makes the research process not only easier, but more fun and enjoyable, too.”
Eichner added that he appreciated the level of collaboration between the students, faculty members, and community partners in the space. “Since we’re all working together to solve a problem or address an issue,” he said, “the Action Lab is more of a professional environment than a traditional college classroom.”
Visit the Liberal Arts action Lab website.