13 OF '13
Students at a recycling center
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Thinking Outside the Book

As an English lecturer at UNCW, Rebecca Warfield thinks outside the book.

Rather than just reading and writing about sustainability as a theme in literature, Warfield's English 101 students are sorting through trash and collecting recyclables. The service learning component of her current course was piloted as an ETEAL* (Experiencing Transformative Education through Applied Learning) supported initiative with her English 290 class, White Vinegar and Chicken Coops: The Narratives of Homesteading and Self-Sustainability.

Warfield's class features a variety of memoirs about homesteaders (people who have left an urban environment to live in the middle of nowhere) and urban farmers (city dwellers who cultivate farms and gardens geared towards sustainability). Her students are required to take part in service learning - in this case, four hours a week, they work at the campus recycling center.

"In order to pass the class, they have to do this. They have to go to the back of campus and actually get into the trash and sort through it, and they have to go around campus and collect all of the recyclables. That's a small project right now. We're working on maybe making that a larger project for the university," Warfield said.

For their off-campus projects, the students were given the options of harvesting herbs at Shelton Herb Farm, helping Tidal Creek Food Cooperative with research, working with local kindergarteners to build gardens through the Food Corp or working with Progressive Gardens to prepare, seed and harvest gardens.

Warfield's course is an example of how ETEAL-supported initiatives differ from other applied learning experiences because there is a greater emphasis on the intention behind the experience and the critical reflection throughout and following the experience.

She notes a difference in her students after their first day at the recycling center.

"They get preachy about the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle). The experience shows them that we are in a community that is environmentally conscious and fosters a true love of place when they see firsthand what goes on on campus and how much work goes into these services," she said.

From an ecocomposition standpoint, Warfield extols the hands-on opportunity for students because it proves "what we are studying is not just a theory - it's the real world. It helps my students conceptualize their own actions and make connections - what they are doing and what others are doing for them."

Emphasis on applied learning

*ETEAL is UNCW's Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a primary requirement for the university's 2013 decennial reaccreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Over the past three years, UNC Wilmington professors, administrators, staff and students have worked diligently to develop the QEP - a "long-term, university-wide project meant to improve, enrich and enhance the student learning experience."

Applied learning takes place all over campus: directed independent study (DIS), internships, course-embedded projects that include hands-on experiences, community-based projects, honors projects, study abroad and undergraduate research.

A greater emphasis on the intention behind the experience and on the initiation of critical reflection throughout and following the experience are the main ways that ETEAL differs from previous applied learning experiences.

"It sounds really simple, but research shows that there are huge improvements just by doing these little things," said Laura Harrison, a graduate teaching assistant to the QEP.

"The intention of knowing what you're doing and being involved in the learning process - being an active learner - is the point of applied learning. The second part of that is reflection - all of our classes, regardless of how often they do reflection in class, have a reflection piece at the end. A lot of this is just improving written and oral skills, but also critical thinking... It's all about planting the seeds and connecting the dots."