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Two General College students working on a house frame.

Shaquite Battles (foreground) and Juanita Felder (background) on site at Heritage Park housing development in north Minneapolis. The new development is on the former site of the Depression-era Sumner Field Homes.

Building the future

By Judith Fox

March 10, 2006

Two University of Minnesota General College professors recently integrated the seemingly disparate subjects of math and writing in a learning community, a progressive educational model that will be a signature feature in General College's successor department in the College of Education and Human Development. Learning communities engage students by linking courses, providing students with integrated learning opportunities and increased interaction with their instructors and peers. Last fall, 18 first-year students took part in a learning community taught by Irene Duranczyk, assistant professor of mathematics, and Amy Lee, associate professor of writing, who linked their courses with a Habitat for Humanity service project. Students in this learning community explored how Hurricane Katrina's devastation redefined housing and housing issues in New Orleans. They gathered and analyzed demographic data on New Orleans and used algebraic expressions and concepts to develop statistics such as residents' race, ethnicity, income, and size of household. With their newly developed mathematical thinking, students gained a broader understanding of the unfolding stories about housing for New Orleans residents in Katrina's aftermath. The students then had an opportunity to put their newfound knowledge into practice. Along with professors Duranczyk and Lee, the students participated in a Habitat for Humanity build taking place in the Heritage Park housing development in north Minneapolis. They learned how to frame and raise internal walls and finish external framing. They used algebraic formulas in order to measure, determine angles and lines, and to proof their work. "In many cases," says Duranczyk, "hours of work turned out to be merely a 'first draft,' once students discovered they'd performed a calculation wrong. If they were off by even as little as 1/16 of an inch, an entire wall needed to come down."

Name change

Effective July 1, 2006, a new Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning will be established in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). This department results from the collegiate redesign and integration of General College with a new CEHD approved by the U's Board of Regents in June 2005. The new department will continue and extend the core teaching and research interests of faculty from the former General College.

Both Duranczyk and Lee employed a process-based approach to learning in their courses. This approach values and makes plain the process by which learning occurs. Students come to realize that knowledge is developed over time and through stages of brainstorming, drafting, critiquing, self-reflection, revision, and assessment. For Lee, the process-based approach, which helps students learn how to learn, is critical. "It's an approach that can yield success in all disciplines, and at all levels of education," she says. The learning community offered all participants--both students and professors--a powerful experience of community building. "As teachers, we don't often get the chance to observe our students working, participating, and simply being outside of our classrooms," Lee says. "And our students don't often get the chance to see their teachers as learners. At our Habitat build, we were on an equal footing-learners, one and all."