(in press) In K. K. Karukstis & T. Elgren (Eds.), How to design, implement, and sustain a research-supportive undergraduate curriculum: A compendium of successful curricular practices from faculty and institutions engaged in undergraduate research. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.
Intrinsically Meaningful Goals and the Process of Peer Review: Why and How Teaching Can Make a Difference G. Scott Acton Rochester Institute of Technology
With no running water or electricity and a daily struggle just to find food, the people in Borgne, a remote coastal village in the small Caribbean nation of Haiti, live in abject poverty. To say that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere does not do justice to the human misery and struggle for survival that real people there face daily. For 10 years Haiti Outreach Pwoje Espwa (H.O.P.E.) has maintained the only functioning medical clinic in the region. H.O.P.E. also sponsors a grain and rice mill, bakery, technology center, and teacher education--all with the philosophy of walking in solidarity with the poor. The Haitian Ministry of Public Health recently turned over to H.O.P.E. responsibility for healthcare of the entire region.
Against this real-life setting I train young scientists in the process of writing grants and papers. In my course Scientific Writing, students' writing undergoes a process of peer review in which other students and I suggest improvements on multiple drafts of their work. In addition to writing grants, I also have students write papers for possible publication with peer commentaries and author responses on a major academic website, Great Ideas in Personality.
When it came to grant writing, students showed initial trepidation, mentioning that they had never written a grant. But thanks to volunteers in H.O.P.E. and the process of peer review, students were provided ample resources to succeed. First, each group of three students was assigned three expert consultants with considerable experience in Borgne to contact by email. Two volunteers who had been to Borgne presented slides to the class, emphasizing the vast needs and intrinsic importance of the assignment. A recent RIT alumna who had spent over a year in Borgne and was fluent in Creole attended the classes during which grants were reviewed and provided extensive feedback. Through the process of peer review, other students writing grants on similar topics also provided feedback. Using the Foundation Center database available at most public libraries, one volunteer developed a binder of prospective foundations. Each group nominated five of these foundations and developed a grant consistent with plans outlined on the H.O.P.E. website. Students were instructed in how to write grants and given an example grant I had previously submitted to fund a H.O.P.E. project. Thus, to ensure successful completion of this challenging assignment, numerous resources were made available to students both inside and outside the classroom. Students completed grants to fund seven of H.O.P.E.'s Top 10 Projects. Promising grants are actually to be submitted to foundations.
The exercise in grant writing provides students with a marketable skill, consistent with the mission of RIT (a good grant writer will never lack for work). Many grant writers also serve grassroots organizations, where much community spirit and positive social change in the United States begin.
After completion of the assignment one student wrote, "You changed my whole perspective about Haiti, now I can't stop thinking about that place. I ended up sponsoring a child from Haiti. Further, my husband and I are trying to have a baby and the idea of adopting from Haiti keeps coming up." Another wrote, "I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed doing this assignment.... I hope what we wrote helps some people in Haiti." Another student assisted with the organization's annual fundraising dinner. These testimonials signify to me that this course made a difference--quite apart from funding any H.O.P.E. projects--one student at a time.
In addition to grants, students wrote theoretical or review papers on a variety of topics with the ultimate aim of publishing on Great Ideas in Personality. Visited over one million times since 1997, this website is one of the personality resources most frequently visited by students, scholars, and laypersons alike, so it afforded an opportunity for students to work toward an intrinsically meaningful goal. I reasoned that students would make extra efforts if they knew their work would be visible to a large number of people who found their topic interesting, and my expectations were fulfilled. My students produced excellent work in the form of papers with peer commentaries and author responses, which are publicly viewable and have been used as resources in personality courses at other universities. One of these papers went on to win the prestigious college-wide Kearse Award for Writing.
For my students, thinking of something new to say created a necessity for critical and creative thinking, whereas evaluating another student's writing meant absorbing what that student knew of the field. This shows what many educators refer to as experiential learning and what one cognitive scientist termed case-based learning--natural learning that facilitates long-term memory and application. For my students, the result was unambiguously demonstrated mastery of the content area. The key to achieving this result, I believe, was providing goals that were intrinsically meaningful and a process that helped students reach those goals.
Last modified January 2006
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