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January 07, 2011

Carnegie Foundation recognizes NIU for engaged learning

DeKalb, Ill. — The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has recognized Northern Illinois University as among the best colleges and universities in the nation for engaged learning.

Engaged learning provides students opportunities to interact with businesses, schools and other institutions to help them better understand how classroom learning relates to identifying and resolving real-world problems.

NIU was one of 115 colleges and universities added to Carnegie’s list of schools meeting the “Curricular Engagement” criteria. Only 311 schools nationwide have attained that designation since it was created in 2006.

Carnegie extends the “Curricular Engagement” designation to institutions that can demonstrate that teaching, learning and scholarship at the school engage faculty and students with the broader community in mutually beneficial collaboration. It is a goal that NIU has pursued throughout its history.

“NIU has always prided itself on working to ensure that the knowledge we share and produce is relevant and enhances the world around us,” said NIU President John Peters. “We have always encouraged faculty and students to learn the needs of the community and address them. This Carnegie designation validates our success in doing so. It places us as amongst the leaders in aligning our mission and resources with the needs of the communities we serve.”

To earn the designation, NIU had to document the ways in which faculty and students engage with businesses, schools and not-for-profit agencies. The most difficult part of that endeavor, said Julia Spears, who oversees Engaged Learning Initiatives for the university, was selecting from the hundreds of examples available.

“Engaged learning is absolutely ingrained in what our faculty, students and administrators do every day here at NIU, but we have rarely stopped to quantify those efforts. When we did, it was almost overwhelming,” said Spears. Her office found that, last year alone, nearly 5,000 students participated in more than 500 courses that allowed students to earn credit for working on projects that meet needs identified by the community.

The university also excelled in other factors analyzed by Carnegie:

  • Undergraduate research. In the spring of 2010 more than 180 students participated in the university’s first-ever Undergraduate Research Day, showcasing research into promising cancer treatments, ways to use algae to create bio-fuel and designs for fuel efficient vehicles, etc. Many of the students worked side-by-side with professors and got to publish in scholarly journals or present at conferences.
  • Internships/Co-op. Virtually every major offered at NIU includes opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience through internships or co-op programs. Examples include art students partnering with K-12 schools across the region to kinesiology students working in athletic training settings.
  • Study Abroad. Many NIU study abroad programs incorporate experiential learning. For instance, anthropology students can do fieldwork in Sicily, Cambodia, Kenya and Peru, while audiology students have traveled to Taiwan to provide hearing services in orphanages.
  • Engagement opportunities across the spectrum. Students have opportunities for engaged learning from freshman year through graduate school.

While the university has provided such opportunities for decades, they are particularly valuable today, said NIU Vice Provost Earl Seaver.

“Today’s students are hungry for engaged learning,” Seaver said. “Not only because it enriches their learning, but also because the skills that they learn from those experiences – problem solving, the ability to work in teams, how to communicate – are in great demand by employers.”

In addition to finding hundreds of documentable instances of engaged learning at NIU, the Carnegie application process helped NIU identify many other classes that, with small adjustments, can meet Carnegie criteria for service learning.

“In most of those instances, it is simply a matter of building a reflection component into the class – compelling students to examine the work they are doing in the community and to help them understand how it relates to what they are learning in the classroom,” Spears explained.

To help such classes evolve into full-fledged examples of service learning, the university has appointed Nancy Castle, a professor in NIU’s School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders, as the new facilitator for service learning initiatives in the Office of Engaged Learning.

NIU previously earned the Carnegie certification for Outreach and Partnerships, which recognized the university’s dedication to applying institutional resources for the betterment of the community, and for its many partnerships aimed at creating the exchange, exploration and application of knowledge, information and resources for the mutual benefit of the university and the community.

“The Outreach and Partnerships designation recognized activities that incorporate students but not necessarily for course credit," explains Anne Kaplan, NIU vice president for Administration and Outreach. "This award demonstrates that we not only work to better our region, we take full advantage of it by exposing our students to the opportunities made possible by our location in one of the most dynamic regions of the country.”

For more information on engaged learning at NIU, visit the Engaged Learning website at http://www.niu.edu/engagedlearning/.

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Media Contact: Joe King, NIU Media Relations & Internal Communications
Phone: 815-753-4922
Email: joking@niu.edu