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Fieldnotes From a New (Read: Nervous) Community-Engaged Instructor 

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By Robin Tinghitella, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences

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If you’re anything like me, when you started planning your courses last summer, the prospect of the up-coming school year made you more than a little bit nervous. We were facing new challenges, teaching in new environments (our homes), and supporting students who were likely to encounter or to have already encountered some very real and scary life situations. But as others have pointed out before me, while there were some huge challenges associated with teaching in Covid times, for some there was also opportunity – opportunity to modify, revamp, create, recreate, and collaborate in our teaching and learning (Hughes et al. 2020). Online communities centered on teaching multiplied in my disciplinary circles, and with newfound connections and inspiration, I found myself ready to make some of those changes to my teaching that are often on the backburner during busy research times. One area I have long wanted to delve into is community-engaged teaching. While I’m a practicing evolutionary biologist, I also have experience in informal science education, science communication, and outreach and I have longed for ways to connect my passion for research with my passion for expanding access to science education. So, I applied to be a Community-Engaged Teaching Faculty Fellow and discovered a wonderfully vibrant group of educators here on campus. Let me tell you a bit about my experience dipping my toe in community-engaged teaching.  

There was some hesitation, of course. It seemed like a big undertaking to lead a group of students through the process of identifying interests, building community partnerships, and executing their plans all in a short ten-week course, while still covering some disciplinary content. My science communication class seemed like the perfect place to begin doing some community-engaged teaching, but modifying the class wasn’t without its challenges. This is a hybrid course cross listed for advanced undergraduate and graduate students and is offered to students from several science departments. My concerns mostly surrounded my desire to be reasonable about the time, energy, and mental load I could ask my students and community partners to commit to this work during a global pandemic. I wanted to find ways for the community-engaged work to truly be reciprocal in that it was initiated by a community need that simultaneously allowed my students to meet their own career goals and put into practice some of the science communication skills they would learn over the quarter. I wanted to ask my new and continued community partners what they needed right now and how we could help, before suggesting anything we might offer. I also wanted to know what my students needed – what support do they need this quarter? Who do they want to be after graduation? How can I help them get to that place? And, finally, I wanted students who were already engaged in work with partners (e.g. non-profits, government agencies, healthcare providers) to be able to continue and grow that work, which meant not pre-prescribing who our community partner(s) would be. I was reticent, but ready to dip my toe in the water.    

Meeting monthly with colleagues in my Faculty Fellows cohort meant that I had lots of time to reflect on my own process as a community-engaged educator and plenty of access to a group of incredibly thoughtful and experienced colleagues to help guide my process. My ideas about what a community-engaged class should look like changed over the course of the year, so here I want to share a few fieldnotes and lessons learned.  

  1. Sometimes just getting started is the hardest part. It can be intimidating to make initial connections with local community partners. Use your resources. DU has a plethora of amazing educators on campus who are ready to help. Think about colleagues in different disciplines, for instance, who might have personal or professional contacts who work in the areas you’re interested in engaging in your teaching. We even have folks with tons of experience preparing students to make that first connection with a potential community partner. Reach out to the wonderful folks at CCESL for support getting started.  
  1. It’s okay to start small! Ten weeks is not very long. I had a lofty plan to completely revamp my science communication class, taking an already well-developed hybrid course and making it fully community-engaged with quarter-long student initiated science communication projects that would connect to their future careers in meaningful ways. In Winter 2021, it all felt too overwhelming. Talking with my more experienced colleagues made it clear that if ten weeks feels too short to fit everything in, the task you set for yourself is just too big. Retool, keeping your course learning objectives at the center of your planning. I scaled back big time for this course, making the community-engaged part of our class optional this first go around and scheduling lots of in class time for students to talk, think, write, and plan.   
  1. Relax. Our students are our best assets. Give them some tools, make your goals for their learning and development clear, and trust that when you let them run with it, they will shine! Despite my best efforts to scale way back, students in my science communication course designed new games for K-12 students that teach natural and sexual selection using M&Ms and allow diverse constituents to collaborate to combat climate change, developed a series of hands-on demonstrations about the water cycle and water purification that can be used in museums, wrote a series of four Ted-X style talks on the interconnections between mental and physical health, and designed some phenomenal online expansions for local girls’ STEM summer camps. The kids are alright.  


As the end of the quarter approached, ten weeks still felt a bit short, as it often does. But I found joy in connecting students who wanted to continue to expand their community-engaged projects with on- and off-campus resources like the Advancing Community-Engaged (ACE) Student Scholarship Grants offered through CCESL. So if you’re a little hesitant, like I was, go for it! And, reach out if you want to chat with someone who’s been there – I’m always happy to help.  


Hughes M, Bertram SM, Young AM, Merry JW, Kolluru GR, Dunlap AS, Danielson-Francois A, and Weiss S. 2021. Teaching animal behavior online: A primer for the pandemic and beyond. Ethology. 127(1): 14-31.   

This reflection was completed during the 2020-2021 “Faculty Fellows: Community-Engaged Teaching in COVID Times” program. To learn about this year’s Community of Practice, please visit our website here. The program was a collaborative effort organized by the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning, the University Writing Program, and the Office of Teaching and Learning and was generously supported by DU Academic Affairs.


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