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More than 50 students in the UMD reality psychology course standing in a large group outside, wearing their blue class T-shirts.

After feedback from students and site partners that it was difficult to identify the Reality Psychology volunteers among other UMD volunteers, Butterfield heeded their advice: She wrote grant proposals to local businesses to raise enough money to make T-shirts for the entire class.

Reality psych

Public engagement has transformed a UMD class

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Dec. 5, 2007

Partnerships between the community and the University are essential to public engagement. But how do those partnerships start, and how do they evolve?

Brenda Butterfield has created a network of partnerships with local community organizations for an undergraduate developmental psychology course that she teaches at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

The focus of Psychology 2021 is the socio-cultural environment influences on human development, from childhood through adolescence. After Butterfield taught the course in fall 2006, she thought it was missing a crucial hands-on component. She got the idea to inject service-learning into the spring semester class.

"I felt like I was not reaching the students--that they were not getting it," says Butterfield. "I had to find a way to get them excited, and, as a social worker by training, I really wanted them to find a way to work with the local community agencies serving children and youth populations that we know are at greatest risk."

Butterfield began with a simple phone call. She contacted the local branch of Head Start, a national organization promoting school readiness, to discuss partnership possibilities. Then she worked closely with the UMD Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) to create the service-learning component for her class. With the help of OCE's Jenice Kienzle, Butterfield identified other community agencies serving diverse children and youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and Reality Psychology-UMD was born.

"By just picking up the phone and starting to make these connections, things have really taken on a life of their own effect," says Butterfield. "By partnering with these community agencies, the class curriculum has been transformed into an active, challenging course where we have been able to discuss topics like educational disparity and issues of social justice."

This fall, Butterfield's class of 108 undergraduates had a choice of five local organizations where they are serving the 20 hours required to complete the course. At Head Start, student volunteers focus on language development with local children living in economic poverty. Through an after-school program called Compass, student volunteers tutor children in math and reading at two local elementary schools, Lowell and Nettleton. At Kenwood Edison School, a local charter school with a diverse population, student volunteers work in classrooms to aid the teachers. And at the Arrowhead Juvenile Center, students have a chance to work with an older group of abjudicated youth, ages 13 to 18.

Maintaining a delicate balance

Now in the new course's second semester, it has already undergone a number of important changes crucial to maintaining what Butterfield calls the delicate balance of a good partnership.

"It is a delicate balancing act, asking for community support while not overwhelming them," says Butterfield. "It really has to be a wise use of their time, and they have to feel the benefit--it cannot cost them more than they get out of it."

Brenda Butterfield
Brenda Butterfield. Photo by Brett Groehler.

Butterfield has come to appreciate the value of "constant communication" with the community agencies, asking for feedback and making sure that their needs are being met. She also stresses the importance of the agencies' presence in the classroom.

In its inaugural semester, the site partners visited the classroom only once--at the end of the semester--to participate in a panel discussion about the project. But Butterfield and her partners felt that one point of contact just wasn't enough, so this semester the site partners came to the classroom a total of three times. At the beginning of the semester, each agency gave a short class presentation about their organization, and then students signed up for their service organization and received a short orientation. Mid-semester, a panel discussion was held to talk about the students' progress and any problems.

Butterfield anticipates that during the final class visit this semester, the panel discussion will provide her and the students with useful feedback on their impact on the Duluth community.

"I am hoping to help my students understand that they can make a difference in the lives of others by volunteering their time," says Butterfield. "I am relying on the site reps and children and youth at each site to tell us if it is helping, if my students are making a difference."

Opening a path

One site partner, Pamela Rees, Head Start Duluth's Early Reading First coordinator, hopes that the students' short volunteering stint will serve as a motivation for a more sustained commitment.

"I want this experience to spark students' interest to be more active volunteers in the community," says Rees. "They need to see that it takes all of us giving time to change, and a course like this helps them see themselves as vital members of the community."

Butterfield is confident that Rees's wish will be granted. Many students have already expressed a desire to keep volunteering after the class ends.

Students like Dena Hansen, a junior studying communications and psychology, view Butterfield's course as a way to get them out into the community as well as a path to real learning.

"Textbooks can only teach to a certain extent," says Hansen. "Experiences like these are vital to education because they give insight into life's reality."

Stephanie Wilkes is a senior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office of Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail