Indiana University Northwest
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Real-world educations

For IU Northwest students, the best learning is done in the field

Wednesday May 28, 2014


How many college students go to class and get to carry out a full-fledged controlled prairie burn? Or, recommend solutions to real problems in their own cities and towns, and see their ideas implemented? Or, take their newly learned clinical skills and put them to work in an underserved population, offering invaluable services to real patients?

At Indiana University Northwest, most of them do.

In fact, at IU Northwest, this kind of hands-on learning is the norm rather than the exception. Hardly anyone learns strictly in a classroom anymore. And that’s a good thing.

Sitting in lecture halls and pouring over case studies to learn how something should be done in the field is only one small part of higher education at IU Northwest. Rather, experiences are a primary way students learn, from professors who, in large part, have worked in the very careers the students are pursuing.

Such opportunities for students are plentiful in every discipline at IU Northwest. From ecology to nursing to city planning, three examples from the 2013-14 academic year illustrate the full scope of an IU Northwest education.

Burning issues in ecology

Spencer Cortwright, Ph.D., department chair and associate professor of biology, provides a field experience for all of his upper-level classes. One popular site for a variety of lessons is the Little Calumet River Prairie and Wetlands, sometimes known affectionately as “Spencer’s Prairie,” located immediately north of the main campus parking lot.

Cortwright is happy to be the prairie’s permanent caretaker, and a great side benefit is that it has also become a classroom for IU Northwest students. His zoology students regularly study the foraging habits of small mammals, and the Biology Club assists in conducting a controlled prairie burn.

Recent biology graduate Bridget Swope recently participated in her third controlled prairie burn under Cortwright’s supervision. Her excitement is apparent as she recounts her experience.

“The day of the burn, you get here at 9 a.m.,” she said. “You load everything up. You have the gas tanks and the water prepared just in case you get spot fires. You go down and do a test fire like in small corner so it doesn’t get too far and you make sure the wind is going to push it so it goes out toward the barriers – like the pavement or the street – where it is not going to burn. You make sure the wind is good, the humidity is good, that everything is alright. And then you start at the highest area. There is really tall grass by the levy wall, so we burn that area first because it is the biggest grass density and grass burns the hottest. And then we just go through and everyone gets their turn.”

Swope emphasized that proper certification is required to conduct a prairie burn so the students are supervised closely.

Swope said the prairie is a great hands-on classroom, not only for fire training, but also for many aspects of ecology – the study of insects, the impact of non-native plants, changes in the food web, the eating habits of mice, and more. The prairie provides a field experience in all parts of an ecosystem.

“It helped me be a well-rounded biologist,” Swope said.                                                                                                      

Cortwright said that conducting a controlled prairie is actually a skill that is needed in Northwest Indiana.

“The application of prescribed fire is performed by all conservation groups in the Midwest and hence, is an important skill for students looking for such a job,” Cortwright said. “At the same time, our fire efforts work to improve a nature preserve that thousands drive by each day.”

Making a difference in our neighborhoods

As part of his Environmental Planning course, Kalim Shah, Ph.D., asked his students to get involved in public meetings of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC).

In groups of three and four, the students took part in each of the commission’s policy committees, and by semester’s end, they presented their planning and process recommendations to the committees.

Lauren Whitman, a senior majoring in anthropology, served on a NIRPC committee that addresses bicycle, pedestrian and water transportation in the area. Her group provided recommendations for how to improve the visibility of the committee’s meetings and get more community input.

Whitman said she valued the experience for the education it provided about how things get done in a community – locally, federally and globally.

“We heard lectures on actual policies of planning and learned about how it gets to the state and federal level,” she said. “On the local level we were asked to participate in a committee of NIRPC. We visited their meetings and learned how what we were learning in class about policies at the national level apply locally,” Whitman said. “One of the central messages of the class was that even if you think globally, which is kind of the motto for any environmental science, what really matters is when you act locally. That was our goal. To figure out how these policies could move forward in our area.”

Whitman, whose ultimate career goal is to become a college professor, said she was interested in urban planning for her personal interest. In fact, she is also earning a minor in urban public health.

She said the experience helped her to become a better citizen.

“I know who to talk to and how things actually get done. If I have an issue with a sidewalk in my neighborhood, for instance, I know who to talk to about it.”

Nursing lessons from Guatemala

Clinical Assistant Professor Jennifer Szabo’s course, titled Global Service Learning, recently culminated in a 10-day trip to Zacapa, Guatemala, organized by Hearts in Motion, a non-profit organization that provides care and medical treatment for children, families, and communities through its programs and sponsorships in the U.S., and Central and South America.

The experience was the first trip abroad for the School of Nursing, in which 13 students and three recent graduates lent their talents, and nursing skills, to residents of a poverty-stricken village.

“Throughout our 10 days, we set up five different clinics and delivered care in rural mountainside villages,” Szabo said. “We made food and distributed it as well as clothing to one poverty-stricken village that sits literally on a garbage dump, participated in a weekly feeding program at an orphanage, visited and passed out toys and bubbles at a daycare, moved all furniture and supplies to a new building from a daycare that was destroyed by water, and immersed ourselves in the Guatemalan culture as well as definitely improved our Spanish-speaking skills.”

Nursing student Lissa Landini, said that seeing many different patients with many different conditions all in one day was a clinical experience unlike any she’d had before. The students had to think quickly on their feet, which gave them a taste of what a day in the life of a nurse might be like.

“Being able to practice like a nurse but not necessarily being a nurse yet, gives you an eye-opening example of what it will be like when you get there, and it gives you an idea of what you want to do in the future too. Now that I’ve done this,” she said, “I can’t imagine not doing this for the rest of my life.”

Adam Wolfe, a full-time firefighter who is trading his career in teaching for one in nursing, gave one word to describe the experience: “life-changing.” He agreed that nursing is only one small part of the education he received in Guatemala.

“It helped me open my eyes to the compassionate side – seeing people as people and not just seeing them as patients,” he said.

Szabo hopes to make future trips a collaborative venture and engage other disciplines on campus, especially from the College of Health and Human Services, as the experience lends itself perfectly for interprofessional education.

“This experience is valuable because it allows students first-hand experience in encountering global health challenges unique to underdeveloped nations,” Szabo said.

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