Engaged Learning: Connecting The Classroom With The World

By Kara Kunkel

Teaching mentally handicapped children in India this past summer, SMU sophomore Meera Nair used her ingenuity to handle situations that challenged her understanding of “classroom norms.” In doing so, she achieved success in small steps.

In one class, Nair taught 8-year-old students with cerebral palsy, who, because of a lack muscle control, found it difficult to copy simple words like “cat” and “dog.” Instead of relying on the written word to teach language skills, she structured two-minute conversations in English for them. “It was rewarding to know that for those three hours I worked with them, they were actively learning and applying their knowledge,” she says.

A public service internship from SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility enabled Nair to spend her summer volunteering. She requested and received a teaching position at Swasraya, a school for mentally handicapped children near her grandparents’ home in Kerala, India, where she spent summers as a girl and would play with the children during break time at the school. “The teachers knew me and the students became my friends,” says Nair, who is majoring in computer science in the Lyle School of Engineering.

Nair’s internship is a prime example of a learning experience that SMU increasingly seeks to offer its undergraduates out of the classroom. The University has initiated a new program, Engaged Learning, which encourages undergraduates to apply their knowledge in one of four categories – research, the arts, the community and the professions – to real-life situations in the Dallas community and the world.

“We ask the students, ‘What do you care about?’” says Provost Paul Ludden, whose office piloted the program and last spring provided $2,000 each to four undergraduates to support their projects. One goal of working on such projects is for students to gain an understanding of how the academic and real-world communities work together, he says. Other goals aim for students to design their experiences and to be directly involved in meeting needs in the community.

“I call these experiences journeys of discovery,” Ludden adds.

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