Resulting Projects and Research

Observations, Recognition, and Awards

During the first year of Wagner College's First-Year Program (fall, 1998), Don Stearns' environmental learning community included Environmental Biology, Reflective Tutorial, and an economics course (instead of an English literature course). At that time the experiential component was purely community service, with no Toms River Project or exposure to the political process in Washington, D.C. The following year (fall, 1999), the experiential component was changed to The Toms River Project-a field-based, community research model. The project required group trips to Toms River, New Jersey, where residents took an active role in educating the students regarding the environmental/human health issue there. The regional press published two newspaper articles highlighting the students' involvement in The Toms River Project (Gannon, A. 1999, December 11. Students study 'cancer cluster.' Asbury Park Press, p. A5; Mikle, J. 1999, October 2. Reality lesson: cancer inquiry is college project. Asbury Park Press, pp. B1-B2).

The effectiveness of the learning community with and without The Toms River Project was analyzed using the same survey instrument in 1998 (without The Toms River Project) and 1999 (with the project). This learning community was also compared with the other learning communities presented in those years as part of the First-Year Program. The survey instrument covered the perceived importance of the experiential component to the student's education, the student's perceived benefit of his/her presence in the community, the connection between the experience in the community and the lectures in the classroom (i.e., the perceived relevancy of higher education), development of critical thinking skills, and development of a sense of civic engagement. Results showed highly significant (p<<0.0001) improvement in scores for this learning community from 1998 to 1999. The 1999 environmental learning community also stood out favorably when compared with the other learning communities. This research has been peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of Experiential Education (Peters, J.R. and D.E. Stearns. 2003. Bringing educational relevancy to the first-year college experience by bearing witness to social problems. Journal of Experiential Education 25(3): 332-342). This research is particularly valuable in being one of the very few publications that uses a thorough statistical treatment to show quantitative evidence-not selected testimonials or anecdotes-regarding the importance of community-based, experiential learning. The results show that it is more important to have an experience that changes one's perception of civic responsibility than it is to require social service without context. Based in part on his success with this learning community, Don Stearns received the Wagner College Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2000.

The present learning community, which now includes an English literature course, has been a highly praised model within the Wagner College First-Year Program for the past four years. Due primarily to the success of this learning community in using experiential, community based learning to achieve learning goals and instill a sense of concerned citizenry in students, Don Stearns was nominated for the nationally recognized Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service-Learning in 2003 by the provost of the college and again in 2004 by the president of the college. Kim Worthy and Don Stearns have been given invited presentations of our learning community model, including one given at Ocean County College, located in Toms River, New Jersey.

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