Embedding Civic Engagement in the Curriculum
A team of staff and students gathered examples of civic engagement in Victoria University of Wellington courses. We spoke to 12 academics, during seven interviews, and asked them how they went about providing civic engagement opportunities for students, as well as what they perceived as enabling and hindering such engagement. We offer the findings from this research in the form of a poem, at the bottom of this page.
Below, we offer examples of how civic engagement might become a more embedded feature of our curricula at VUW, in four sections: bring people in, send students out, assess it (or not), and build it up over time.
Bring People In
Guests from outside the university
The Future of Work course (FHSS207) invites representatives from different industries and professions to present ‘wicked problems’ from an employer perspective. Students then work on group projects to devise recommendations that might make a positive difference for the organisations.
In Administrative Law (LAWS321), office-holders such as city councillors, the Ombudsman, Auditor General, or Chair of Regulation Review committees are invited as guest lecturers. In Public Law (LAWS213) Dean Knight invites guests such as MPs, and former PM Geoffrey Palmer to discuss New Zealand constitutional issues with students
Courses in the Science in Society minor, offered predominantly online, feature guest lecturers from Antarctica New Zealand, Zealandia, NIWA, Te Papa, and many, many other science organisations and businesses around New Zealand. Lectures are filmed (often on location) and made available to students through the course Blackboard site.
Engage students from other disciplines
Science in Society make an active effort to recruit a broad range of students (not just Science majors) in order to encourage discussion from multiple perspectives.
Collaborate with other lecturers within (and beyond) the university
In Media, Technologies and Surveillance (MDIA313) Kathleen Kuehn teaches students to critically engage with digital surveillance in their own lives (more on this in the 'Assess it' section), and she also partnered with Walter Langelaar whose third-year Design students were developing apps in his Mobile Media (MDDN352) course. Kathleen’s media students acted as consultants for this interdisciplinary collaboration, with students from both Faculties gaining new understanding of how data are used and harnessed.
Kathleen also collaborates internationally, crediting the genesis of the idea for her ‘digital footprint analysis’ project assessment (see ‘Assess it’ below) to a colleague in the States, who assigns a ‘surveillance footprint’ assessment whereby students consider where their data might go each day
Assess It (Or Don't)
Include civic engagement as a learning objective
Here are some sample Course Learning Objectives (CLOs) from a variety of courses that encourage a civic focus:
Embed it as assessed work
Kathleen Kuehn runs a ‘digital footprint’ assignment for Media, Technologies and Surveillance which requires students to formally request their data from different organisations and critically analyse how that data is used, and how they themselves participate in different surveillance systems. She has written about this, incorporating her students’ findings (with their permission), and it has featured in various news coverage.
Sara Kindon, from SGEES, embeds students’ participatory action research projects into the curriculum through a reflective essay, group report, and moderated peer-group work evaluation; or through the production of a community exhibition where photography has been involved.
Offer it as an optional extra that is hard to avoid
Dean Knight, from Law, integrates opportunities for civic engagement through two non-assessed initiatives. The first is a version of Show and Tell (now called ‘Curious Citizen’ or ‘Adventures in Fascinating Civic Phenomena’) where students are directed to find a recent news event with relevance to public law and share it with the class. Dean randomly allocates students to share at the beginning of class each week. Students are also encouraged to post their findings on the class blog and discuss with other students.
A second optional extra is the ‘Amazing Race’, a checklist of 12 civic tasks for students to complete outside the classroom during the course. Activities include attending Question Time, watching a public law case in the High Court, filing an Official Information Act, or listening to a radio news report on policy issues. Students’ progress is not formally recorded, but Dean encourages students in the first lecture and checks in across the course.
Send Students Out
In Sara Kindon’s Geography of Development Studies (GEOG404) course, honours and masters students conduct participatory action research projects involving young people with the support of different organisations including: Rimutaka Prison, Hutt City Council, Wellington City Housing, and the non-governmental organisation ChangeMakers Refugee Forum. While students find this kind of experience “intense”, they also find that “because it was real-world, it mattered.”
In an earlier iteration of GEOG404, Sara Kindon conducted field trips with the students to a high-ropes course in Wainuiomata with the aim of building trust and sharing mutual vulnerability in teams. However, Sara now achieves the same aims by taking the students to the playground in Central Park where she co-facilitates team-building exercises in a less high-stakes (and logistically more accessible) setting.
Students in the Science in Society courses conduct ‘citizen science’ projects in locations like Zealandia.
Virtual field trips
Rebecca Priestley, from Science in Society, emphasises that students “don’t need to physically go to a place” to have a field trip experience. As mentioned earlier, many lectures for Science in Society courses are filmed on location, but as part of their assessment, students also conduct ‘virtual field trips’. These include, for example, a tour of Scott’s Hutt in Antarctica where they have to write about an object they discover; and a new module Life on Mars where students are virtually taken through space to consider the technological and societal implications of colonising another planet.
Christian Schott, in Tourism, has created a virtual Pacific Island, which students visit using virtual reality headsets. The initiative has won awards and garnered national and international attention.
Internships and placements
The BA internship course (FHSS302) sends student interns to a range of business, government departments, NGOS, community groups, charities, and cultural and sporting organisations in the Wellington region.
The Faculty of Education has long sent students out on teaching placements, but these are now more seen as a partnership with teachers and schools. The Masters in Secondary School Leadership is very much a partnership model, with placements at different secondary schools and also mentorship from experienced senior staff.
Build It Up Over Time
Start small and build scope over time
From spontaneous beginnings, Kathleen Kuehn, from Media Studies, uses assessment as a “kind of a testing ground” to hone her ideas. She keeps a journal for each class and takes extensive notes on what worked and what didn’t. This allows her to develop civic engagement projects in “baby-steps” by asking herself “this part worked, how can I take this a step further?” Her ‘data surveillance assessment’ had its beginnings in much smaller-scale engagement initiatives, such as encouraging student ‘flash mobs’ and ‘culture jamming’ projects.
Similarly, Dean Knight, from Law, introduced initiatives in an ad hoc way, but has refined and updated the initiatives (including the ‘branding’ and the way he communicates his expectations to students) so they are less of a gimmick and more firmly placed within his approach to teaching and learning.
Sara Kindon, from SGEES, actually scaled back when she realised a smaller-scale exercise could achieve the same ends (see 'Field trips' in 'Send Students Out' above).
Use the finding from previous years’ cohort as a starting point for the next
One way to make civic engagement initiatives sustainable and on-going is for students to make a small contribution to a larger issue – like poverty or environmental change for example – and then pass their findings onto next years’ cohort. This provides students with a sense of collectivity and can provide a grounded approach to ‘big picture’ issues that might otherwise seem too big to tackle. Bronwyn Wood and colleagues from Education discovered this was an effective strategy for high school students in social studies, and the approach can be equally applied at university level.
Trial an initiative with a more experienced colleague
Several participants talked about developing a new course with a colleague less experienced in civic engagement initiatives - in discussion we realised this posed a useful tool for scaffolding development of sustainable initiatives, and we encourage lecturers to consider partnered approaches and more deliberate team teaching (although labour/time of course needs to be taken into account)