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From Classroom to Community

September 2013

"Experience is the best teacher," John Dewey wrote in 1910. Students of COMM 405 Communication Campaigns, the capstone course for SAU public relations majors, would agree.

While polishing their public relations research and messaging skills, the students learned that not all Quad Cities teens can go home at the end of a school day to loving parents, a warm meal, or an environment free of violence.

ThePlace2b provides at-risk teens with a meal, counseling, homework help, and simply a place to be, ThePlace2b director Miriam Prichard told the SAU students. By signing up for COMM 405 the students had become associates of the Ambrose Public Relations Agency (APRA); ThePlace2b was their client for the semester-long, challenge-based learning experience.

ThePlace2b serves 15-20 area teens nightly, Prichard said, and with just one and a quarter paid employees, it can't accommodate any more, giving the students their first hint of the public relations problem they would tackle throughout the semester.

Two-thirds of the teens are black, and most are male. They bring experience with alcohol abuse, drug abuse, gun violence, and gangs. Prichard told the stories of a teen "couch surfing" with friends; of a brother and sister whose mentally ill mother forgot to have food in the house to feed them; of teens who bundled food to steal from a funeral luncheon; even of a teen who stole her cell phone. Even as the female, Caucasian SAU students laughed, they acknowledged the comfort of their own lives. None had witnessed a shooting or experienced true hunger.

Their subsequent research crossed disciplinary boundaries to peel away the veil of ignorance we all have about people unlike ourselves. Homicide is the second leading killer of teens, and more than 700,000 teens have gang affiliations, student and APRA Associate Jessica Jacks discovered. Student and APRA Associate Keri Gleason introduced the class to Kion Lewis, Rock Island, Ill., dead at 17, caught by a stray bullet in the crossfire between two rival gangs. Two of the individuals charged in the shooting were teens. If only ThePlace2b had more employees, more funding, more public awareness, more powerful partnerships, perhaps things would change. And authentic learning morphed into service learning, which is designed to promote student learning and skill development while meeting social needs and fostering social change.

In the spirit of evidence-based practice–a variation of authentic learning in which students seek out industry best practices to solve problems–student and APRA Associate Brittany Krenzelak was inspired by Dan Portnoy, author of Non-Profit Narrative and self-proclaimed "head honcho" of Portnoy Media Group.

Nonprofits "need to tell stories which intrigue and excite people so they want to support their cause," Portnoy says. Data from the Pew Center for People and the Press affirmed that most Americans hear those stories through traditional media–television, newspaper and radio.

But ThePlace2b wasn't telling much of a story. APRA's content analysis of newspaper articles filed under search terms related to "disadvantaged teens" and published since ThePlace2b was conceptualized revealed that ThePlace2b featured in only 5.7 percent of those articles. Interview data confirmed that the Place2b's story wasn't being heard.

Challenge-based learning helps students engage the technology they use to solve problems. Suspicious that Krenzelak's data underestimated the power of the cheap-to-use social media, Laura Whitting discovered that while traditional media are the dominant cultural storytellers, social media function as pointers to traditional media. ThePlace2b would need to harness both in order to tell its story in a way that would encourage donors to open their wallets, volunteers to open their calendars, and Quad Citians to open their hearts.

The students diagnosed the reputation and relationship challenges faced by ThePlace2b. The problem was simple. Lack of visibility. The solution less so. The solution: newsworthy activities and events, a mix of traditional and digital media to tell the stories of those activities and events, cultivation of local news gatekeepers, partnerships with organizations that have similar missions. The students provided their prescription in a formal presentation and a campaign planbook that details not just what to do but why and how to get it done.

COMM 405, the capstone course for St. Ambrose University's public relations majors, is structured around the four principles of authentic learning:

(1) It focuses on practical, real-life problems and simulates the relationship among public relations professionals and clients and their publics outside the classroom.

(2) It emphasizes research while utilizing both declarative and procedural knowledge.

(3) It cultivates a social learning environment in which students guide and question one another.

(4) Finally, based on a shared goal, the students assign tasks and guide their own learning toward effectively accomplishing the tasks.

As Dewey would put it if he were alive today, true learning is actively wrestling with real-world–not virtual world–problems and conditions, designing solutions to address these circumstances, and collaborating face-to-face with others in an attempt to make meaningful progress.

Authentic learning isn't new to the SAU Communication Department. We have long featured project-based learning through the radio/TV students' production of newscasts and live sports programs and through journalism students' publication of a bi-weekly newspaper and accompanying website. Our students wouldn't have it any other way.

Ann Preston, PhD, is Professor of Public Relations and Strategic Communication 

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