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New Learning Communities Set to Enroll Students

By Kevin Foley Article published November 7, 2007

Modern universities produce almost as many acronyms as scholarly papers, so it's no surprise that a new one — PBLC — debuts on campus this spring. It stands for "problem-based learning community," and the idea behind it is to bring skills from different disciplines to bear on social problems through intense multidisciplinary clusters of courses.

Graduate or undergraduate students participating in one of the five new PBLCs will enroll in between two and four courses organized around an issue. Participants will look at the problem from a blend of disciplinary vantage points, and most of the communities have a service or out-of-classroom component. (The Provost's Office has seeded each PBLC with start-up funds to support these efforts.)

The idea is innovative — enough so that President Daniel Mark Fogel says PBLCs should be a "signature" of UVM's academic excellence — the courses are planned, and the 16-odd involved faculty are excited. What remains now is enrolling students. And that, says Nancy Welch, associate professor of English and coordinator of the "Communicative Competence in a Multicultural World" PBLC, will require getting the opportunity on the "radar screens" of advisers and students ahead of the enrollment period beginning later this month.

What will members of the new communities get in exchange for their considerable commitment of effort and credit hours? Fogel is aiming for a life-changing experience. Caroline Beer, associate professor of political science and one of the developers of the "Globalization, Gender and Violence: The Women of Juárez, México" PBLC, is more restrained, but she's excited about the power of the idea.

"Especially in broad programs like Latin American studies, interdisciplinary connections aren't necessarily made for students. You take a bunch of classes, then you make the connections on your own," Beer says. "In this group of classes, we're going to help them make the connections… I think they are going to come away not only with a deep understanding of globalization, but a deeper sense of scholarly approaches and a rich cultural experience."

The specific focus on the murder or disappearance of more than 1,000 women around the Mexican border town of Juárez engages universal issues like globalization and the status of women, Beer says, but it grounds those issues in a place. "We wanted something really specific. You need to have a real problem," Beer says. "We're all interested in globalization, borderlands and women, and this problem has a specific place that you can visualize where it all comes together."

Brief outlines of the five PBLCs for spring follow. Contact involved faculty for descriptions and prerequisites.

Globalization, Gender and Violence: The Women of Juárez, México: The women of Juárez will serve as a node of intersection in the study of politics, arts and literature. The PBLC comprises Political Science 174B, "PBLC—Latino American Politics" (Beer); Art History 196F, "PBLC—'Latin Lovers:' Latinos in Film" (Adriana Katzew, assistant professor of art); and Spanish 296C, "Latin American Women and Globalization" or World Literature 115 Z2 in English (John Waldron, assistant professor of Spanish); and a one-credit seminar.

Communicative Competence in a Multicultural World: How can we recognize the complexity of daily communication and all of the ways in which people are called on to read, write and speak in a society that is both diverse and multi-literate? The community will investigate this question through three linked classes plus a service-learning partnership with Burlington's King Street Youth Center working on "King Street Voices," a blog using audio and video storytelling, art, music and writing. Courses comprise Communication Sciences 162/English 103, "American English Dialogues" (Julie Roberts, associate professor of communication sciences); English 112, "Investigating Literacy" (Nancy Welch, professor of English); and Anthropology 28, "Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology" (Emily Manetta, assistant professor of anthropology).

Identity and Reconstruction of the Southern Sudan: The PBLC will interact with the local Sudanese community, especially the creators of the New Sudan Educational Initiative, a non-governmental organization that recently won a competitive world bank grant of $200,000 to build a school in the southern Sudan. The PBLC comprises EDFS 206B, "Comparative Education" (David Shiman, professor of education); Anthropology 220, "PBLC: Development and Applied Anthropology" (Robert Gordon, professor of anthropology); and Political Science 71B, "Comparative Political Systems" (Peter Vondoepp, assistant professor of political science).

Health Challenges in the 21st Century: The goal is to explore the cultural, economic, and political forces that contribute to personal, national and international health challenges. These issues might include alcohol and tobacco abuse, family planning and abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. The PBLC comprises two of the following three courses and an independent study: Anthropology 174B, "Culture, Health, and Healing" (Jeanne Shea, associate professor of anthropology); Political Science 127B, "Congressional Process" (Eileen Burgin, associate professor of political science); or Economics 230B, "Health Economics" (Sara Solnick, associate professor of economics).

The Obesity Pandemic: A National Problem with a Local Solution: To educate students about obesity and transdisciplinary solutions for it, the PBLC will use a school-based community approach (via the local food nonprofit VT Food Education Everyday) to understand the role of the larger food environment in the obesity pandemic. It combines an understanding of the food system with an applied public communications course to help bridge the disconnect between what VT FEED is teaching in schools and the environmental and nutritional realities children face. Courses comprise Nutrition and Food Sciences 095B, "Farm to Table: Our Contemporary Food System" (Amy Trubek, assistant professor of food and nutrition sciences); CDAE 195B, "Public Communications Media" (Tom Patterson, lecturer of CDAE and extension associate professor); and a one-credit service learning component.