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Community-Based Participatory Research

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A key goal of the Center for Community Collaboration (CCC) is to provide more and better-coordinated support for faculty and students undertaking community-engaged work. In particular, we seek to create a research culture grounded in Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR).

CBPR (also referred to as "participatory action research" or "mutual inquiry") is considered a successful collaborative research model that stresses campus-community partnership and connects faculty from across the disciplines to concerns in the community (Israel et al, 1998, 2003; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003; Reardon, 2003, 2006, 2008; Strand, et al., 2003).

Sample CBPR Initiatives

Multi-Semester Research and Teaching Partnership in Ward 3 of Northampton, Mass.

Ward 3 is the neighborhood with the most diverse population in the city, and it faces strong redevelopment pressures and a recent history of arson fires resulting in two deaths.

Building on the work of previous semesters, teams of Smith students, faculty and community partners used Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure (REAP) to explore the question "What role do green spaces play in defining neighborhood quality of life in Ward 3 in Northampton?"

This process brought the perspectives of local residents to Smith College, a public forum and city leaders, shaping the local planning process.

Interdisciplinary Partnership to Explore Community Health in Springfield, Mass.

Another CBPR project at Smith is rooted in the North End neighborhood of Springfield, Mass., which faces numerous health issues. There, an interdisciplinary team of faculty researchers have worked with the TOLD (Telling Our Legacies Digitally) program. This partnership is examining the use of digital storytelling to engage community residents to actively address ongoing community and personal health issues.

TOLD coordinates workshops in which community members create digital stories from their own lives, a process that teaches technological skills, raises self-efficacy and fosters engagement with the community. The resulting stories, presented at community showcases, provide viewers vivid and personal examples of how their neighbors have encountered the same problems that confront their lives, thereby combating the pervasive sense of isolation that leaves residents feeling powerless to address their problems and is a critical barrier to health service utilization.

Examples of Faculty Work in the Community

We're proud to introduce you to some of the faculty members and students whose teaching and scholarship embody Smith’s commitment to educational outreach. Here, in their own words, they describe the vibrancy of our partnerships and programs.

Click the name of a faculty member

Joanne Corbin
Associate Professor, School for Social Work

Bringing Social Work Interns to Northampton Public Schools

My background is in social work and I became interested in school reform in the 1990s. My experience has taught me that social workers rarely are present at the decision-making points in educational policy. They aren't at school committee meetings, school council meetings or on school leadership teams. I have worked in more than 26 districts around the country and noticed this in district after district. When I came to Smith in 2000, I wanted MSW candidates to have the opportunity to intern in local schools and be part of the schools' decision--making structures. For four years now, interns have been at the Florence Learning Center of Northampton High School and JFK Middle School. The superintendent, director of pupil services and principals have been supportive of these efforts.

They are in the schools 30 hours a week, each seeing approximately 20 students. They're also leading a few weekly groups. Their work includes classroom observations and teacher consultations to enhance their understanding of adolescent development and to look at the connection between developmental needs and the educational program. They have responsibilities for monitoring hallways and cafeterias so students get used to seeing them, and they become part of the climate of the school.

In addition, the interns attend school council and committee meetings. Their input can be crucial because what they see among a group of students may reflect a larger trend. That kind of information can have a preventive impact. It also can highlight undetected issues and raise awareness. This year, the interns are sharing observations with administrators and discussing how particular issues such as school climate, parent involvement and teacher communication impact the development of educational plans and programs.

I see this work as an essential collaboration. Not only does Smith reside in this community, but there are skills and experiences that we as a college and as a school for social work can bring to its public schools. Likewise, those schools are the one place where our interns see a range of normal development across the spectrum of diversity and come to understand principles of social justice and empowerment. This internship program is far more than outreach. It's two entities supporting each other. We need to be at the same table.

Jill deVilliers
Professor of Philosophy and Sophia & Austin Smith Professor of Psychology

Peter de Villiers, Sophia & Austin Smith Professor of Psychology

Collaborating with Community Educators to Develop Family Literacy Center

Jill and I are part of a National Institutes of Health-funded project titled "Elucidating Barriers to Community Engagement: Literacy for a Healthier Community" which brings together a team from Smith and community leaders from Springfield's North End. Smith was one of seven institutions nationally to be awarded this grant, which emphasizes building partnerships with multicultural communities. The project ultimately aims to develop a family literacy center that truly reflects this particular community's needs and wants. Instead of having a research team determining what would be best, the community becomes a collaborative partner throughout the process. So we have Smith faculty working with the administrators and staff of both the Gerena Community School and Brightwood, the local public health clinic, as well as with parents and other residents of the North End. Our primary contact with the community is through the North End Outreach Network (NEON), whose workers go door-to-door helping to put residents in touch with various agencies that can assist their families' educational, health and other concerns. This is a real partnership, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. The level of collaboration is striking—and very engaging.

Jill and I were brought in because of our research experience with child development and early childhood education in multicultural settings. For us, this project is, in many ways, a continuation of other work we've done. For example, we recently finished a NIH-funded project that created a language assessment tool explicitly developed not to be biased against children who are dialect speakers, especially African American children. This project was led by Harry Seymour and Tom Roeper from the University of Massachusetts. We're also part of a large NIH special intervention grant that is studying bilingual preschool children from Hispanic backgrounds. It is looking at curriculum intervention in center-based care for children in poverty. One goal of that project is developing an integrated curriculum for child care providers to use, one that targets the children's language development and prereading skills, their social and emotional development, and their quantitative skills so as to enhance school readiness. We've also had grant support for developing language arts and science curricula at Northampton's Clarke School for the Deaf and the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow.

Jill and I have also been able to get our students involved in the initiatives the community wants to pursue. I've been recruiting students to work with me on handling data collected by the health clinic's outreach workers and now I'm talking to some premed students about helping the clinic director disseminate information about health in the community. Outreach of this sort enriches students' learning by allowing them to apply it. That's central to what we do at Smith. So this outreach project is definitely one with reciprocal benefit, enriching our research and teaching here at Smith as it is also of service to one of our nearby communities.

Susan Etheredge
Assistant Professor of Education & Child Study

Working Across Disciplines to Advance Children's Language for Learning

Generally speaking, my research examines the early childhood and elementary school classroom as a knowledge community and how teachers foster classroom environments that help children develop a language for learning. I'm interested in helping children develop an understanding of how to learn. Over the years, as my research has expanded into the domains of science education, environmental education, and engineering education, I've come to regard the literacies of the early childhood and elementary school classroom as my focus.

In 2004, I worked with Smith's engineering faculty and the Office of Educational Outreach on a summer institute for teachers. Since engineering now is a mandated state curriculum framework, we wanted to help teachers challenge simple stereotypes of what an engineer does and who an engineer is. Our hope was to engage teachers by connecting engineering to something already familiar to them: literacy and books. So, we explored the topic through paper engineering. Educators from throughout Western Massachusetts attended the program and together we developed design problems based on a very lovely, simple picture book and approached how to turn it into a pop-up book. Our goal was to simulate the kind of problem-solving environment in which children solve real problems together. We had great fun and it resulted in a paper presented at the Association for Engineering Education last summer.

This kind of outreach benefits all of us. When the folks who do the applied work every day and the folks who have the opportunity to be developing and thinking about theory come together, it completes the equation. Ultimately, we're all trying to serve our youngest citizens. That's what education should be about—each generation doing the best it can to help prepare the next generation to be citizens of their world.

Sam Intrator
Associate Professor, Education & Child Study

Creating Opportunities for Smith Students to Experience Urban Education Issues

I believe Smith students care deeply about the state of schooling and youth in our society. Not only do Smith students engage deeply with these topics in the classroom, but they also seek to understand these issues by working with children, observing teachers, and working day-to-day within an educational setting. In effort to provide Smith students with direct experience in urban educational contexts we developed the Urban Education Initiative.

It offers fellowships, which are funded by a gift from a Smith alumna, that send 12 students to New York City schools, two to Chicago, and about 16 students to Springfield during January Term. In New York, we've developed quite a network of Smith alumnae who work in urban schools so we're able to place the fellows with these educators. The idea is for the Smith students to be able to immerse themselves in urban schools, understand what teachers face, see how kids negotiate school, and recognize the impact of present-day policies on the lives of those who work in urban settings. We want them to understand how issues of race, class and socioeconomic status are all factors in people's educational trajectory.

I believe that if we're going to prepare students to understand how issues of youth and institutions play out in urban settings, we need to provide opportunities for them to experience what's happening on the ground. Students need to understand that what they're learning in the classroom has both relevance and importance in the context of people's real lives.

The teachers and principals are thrilled with our students. They tutor, they teach, they mentor, and they contribute in any way that they are needed. A key contribution is providing extra support for students who will be taking the high stakes graduation tests such as the NY Regents exam or the Massachusetts MCAS. And the Smith students come back transformed. They've discovered that K-12 institutions and urban youth have a desperate need for intelligent, energized, passionate people. They also come back having learned a lot about themselves—that they have a capacity to connect with kids and to think creatively about how to organize a classroom. I'd say that about 75 percent of former fellows now work with youth in urban or high-need settings. The fellowships really represent a fulfillment of vocation. These students hunger to make a difference. When their great hunger meets the world's great need, something beautiful happens.

Benita Jackson
Assistant Professor of Psychology

Working with Community Members to Advance Literacy

As a health psychologist, I study the relationship between psychological factors and health. I'm particularly interested in how people internalize their environments. How does that manifest in physical health? I'm also interested in how our perceptions of the world shape our experiences. For example, two people can live in the same environment and one ends up thriving while the other doesn't. What is the psychology behind that?

I was invited to bring this perspective to the NIH-funded project "Elucidating Barriers to Community Engagement: Literacy for a Healthier Community," a collaboration between Smith and community members in Springfield's North End. We're in the process of doing a needs assessment to detemine what the community feels its literacy needs are. Our team is a really interesting network of people. It includes literacy specialists in the community and Smith professors who work on language acquisition and child development. We're working with administrators from the Gerena Community School, the chief physician at the Brightwood Health Center, and the director of the North End Outreach Network (NEON). So, we're bringing all these people to the table and examining resources and forging relationships.

In the academy we frequently talk about doing interdisciplinary research but this is an entirely different kind of boundary crossing. It's about real people: it merges anthropology, economics, education, politics, psychology, and sociology with the needs of a diverse and dynamic community. We're extremely fortunate that the Gerena Community School has an amazing infrastructure in place, which helps us in our work.

If we think about a liberal arts education as expanding the ways that students look at the world and giving them a broader set of tools for the world, Smith's involvement with the Gerena Community School is part and parcel of that. The relationship substantially enriches Smith students' experiences. In the classroom, I see the light bulbs go on the most often when what we study has relevance to students' lives. Collaborations such as this have such synergistic potential. Students, hopefully, can both be of some service to the community and enhance their learning.

Leslie Jaffe
Director of Health Services

By Girls, For Girls

By Girls, For Girls is a total immersion into an exploration of health in the broadest sense of the word. We've structured the program to be fun, empowering, and to put the girls in control of what health means to them. We provide direction but our constant goal is to let the discussion come from the girls.

The program takes a holistic approach to defining health. Along with the standard topics, we also consider things not commonly considered health issues, such as school and relationship pressures. We spend time on media literacy and deconstruct the messages the students are being exposed to—the pressures to be thin, the objectification of being a girl in our society. We look at eating disorders and nutrition. These issues are interconnected and we want the girls to see those connections. Why do women in our society have more mental health issues than men? Why do more women experience depression and eating disorders? This program opens their eyes.

The students also serve as a resource for participants in the By Girls, For Girls Summer Institute for Educators. They're very open and honest in answering the educators' questions. Last year, their feedback played a role in a local middle school's decision to change its health education curriculum.

The girls in the program range from grades nine to 12 and are exceptionally diverse—geographically, economically, racially. That makes a unique laboratory. I appreciate learning about teen issues in a more global sense than I might by simply being an adolescent doctor in Northampton or New York City.

As a college health provider, I'm struck by the range of issues that college-age women bring to campus. These include a basic lack of information about their anatomy and many psychosocial issues. I think it's important that Smith College reaches out to younger girls to try to help them navigate some of the increasingly difficult challenges that our society presents to them.

Robert Hosmer
Senior Lecturer, Department of English Language & Literature

Offering Young Women A Writing Laboratory

I teach "Experiment and Exploration: A Laboratory for Writers," a two-week writing component of the Smith Summer Science and Engineering Program. Too often, the technical aspects of writing—grammar, spelling, punctuation, thesis—become obstacles for apprentice writers. There's no denying that those things are important and I do address them during conferences. My goal, however, is larger: enabling each student to gain confidence in her writing and find her own voice.

During each two-week session, I provide the students with writing opportunities free from the constraints of grading and deadlines. We spend time at various sites on campus—the Botanic Gardens, the Plant House, indeed any number of places. Students are encouraged to observe closely the natural world, record their impressions, and shape their responses into an essay. For one exercise, we read "The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Woolf, then explore the campus to find an animal or insect to watch closely before imitating Woolf's essay. We use the splendid resources of Smith's library and its Rare Book Room, taking a look at some of the treasures. A visit to the Dickinson homestead in Amherst as well as the poet's gravesite prompts an essay in response to the question, "where is Emily Dickinson?" We conclude with a guided excursion to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, where students take notes preparatory to an essay on a particular painting or gallery.

Peer workshops and individual conferences with me supplement the course. At the end, students gather a portfolio of six to seven essays, choosing one to be read in performance at the Saturday morning gathering of the whole SSEP. That experience is empowering and affirming for my student writers. Issues of women and writing are important to me. My scholarly interests focus on 20th century British women writers, particularly Virginia Woolf and Muriel Spark. What truly motivates my involvement in the program, however, are the values of my family and educational background with the Jesuits. Service to others matters to me. The resources we make available in the course and in the Smith Summer Science and Engineering Program let students know that there is a world beyond their own particular place, a world welcoming them to opportunity and promise.


Lucy Mule
Assistant Professor of Education & Child Study

Building Partnerships that Connect Theory and Practice in Urban Education

My research interest is in partnerships between institutions of higher education and the community, with a focus on their impact on preservice teacher education. When Smith first was introduced to the Gerena Community School in Springfield it made so much sense to me that these two institutions should collaborate. Springfield is our neighbor a few doors down. It is right for us to have a relationship. One result has been the development of Smith's Urban Education Initiative. I supervise the students who are placed at Gerena as Urban Fellows during January term. It's wonderful to see that the numbers for the Urban Fellows program are rising. I'm not surprised, though, because this is Smith—it's a place where students want to go out and make a difference.

Most of my courses urge students to make a connection between theory and practice. I teach a class called Literacy in Cross-Cultural Perspective, which has a service-learning component. Many of the students opt to do that component at Gerena. I also teach a course called Multicultural Education that is very connected to the issues we encounter at Gerena. I have many students in that class who have chosen to get involved with programs at the school. The powerful insights that the students get out of their involvement at Gerena are amazing. For example, many students have noted that working in the school has helped them develop deeper perspectives on theoretical issues presented in education courses. One student noted: "I have learned so much from being there. It is one thing to be in the [college] classroom and have all these ideas, but when you are actually in the classroom, and you see things being played out, it gives you a whole new perspective." Students are excited about bridging theory and practice.

President Christ once described Smith as "a private school with a public conscience." I really liked that expression and it has stuck with me. I think that's what we'e doing here. We know we are part of the community and we know we need to contribute. And in giving back, all of us at Smith receive so much.

Stylianos Scordilis
Professor of Biological Sciences

Introducing High School Girls to Hands-On Science

I've always been fascinated by how things move. Back when I was two, it was the movements of earthworms that I loved watching. These days, students in my lab and I are looking at what proteins, genes and RNAs are doing in skeletal muscle. We get excited about molecular physiology, whether examining cells with both light and electron microscopes or analyzing the genes and proteins that make muscle move with state-of-the-art genomics and proteomics instrumentation.

My current research was inspired by a student asking, "What happens when your muscle gets sore after exercise?" We decided to explore this phenomenon by studying exercise-induced muscle damage in humans. Another student question got us looking at whether differences were evident between female and male mouse muscles. These lines of investigation have led to my Summer Science and Engineering Program (SSEP) course called Women and Exercise. In the course, we explore some exercise physiology and biochemistry; for example, what is aerobic versus anaerobic exercise and what are the body's adaptations to them? We measure our maximum oxygen carrying capacity, VO2 max, and clinical parameters such as blood hemoglobin content and creatine kinase, as well as glucose and lactic acid levels before and after exercise. We discuss the various biochemical reactions in muscle cells, how to measure them, why we would want to measure them, and what they tell us.

Courses in the SSEP remove inhibitions about giving the "right" answer since there are no evaluations. We get into the subjects deeply, six hours a day in the lab. Our students get hands-on experience to appropriately advanced topics and sophisticated instrumentation. I find that really good learning occurs because the students work together and feel free to ask questions. Along the way, they start to understand what it means to do science and interact with other girls interested in science.

Smith's outreach in this area is critically important because there is so much untapped talent just waiting to be discovered and uncovered. The SSEP helps girls recognize their own possibilities, discover that they really can do science and that it is fun. I'm always hoping to stimulate an interest in research—and many participants do decide that science is for them.

Working with the SSEP students is a pleasure. They're extremely frank in their questions and their opinions, which helps me improve the material and my teaching. It's just great seeing girls get excited about science.

Rebecca Thomas
Laboratory Instructor

Bringing the Excitement of Science to Local School Children

I'm an organic polymer chemist but the kids at Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence know me as "the science lady." Since 2003, I've been organizing the Ryan Road Family Science Nights with the help of the Ryan Road PTO. These events introduce children to the excitement and fun of science through hands-on activities. For example, we've examined acids and bases using the dye in red cabbage leaves. We've also looked at how much water super-absorbent polymers can hold and learned how polar bears can survive in the cold Arctic.

Each grade at Ryan Road gets one science night a year. Approximately 20 to 30 Smith students assist at each event. They come from a variety of disciplines—anthropology, chemistry, neuroscience, biology, geology, women's studies—but at some point they all found their way into my chemistry classroom and signed up to help. At the start, each student introduces herself and her discipline: "I study chemistry. This is what chemists do"; "I study biology. This is what biologists do"; "I study neuroscience. This is what neuroscientists do." So, along with having fun, the kids have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of disciplines and a room full of young women scientists.

Prior to the event, I have a meeting with the Smith students to discuss the real science behind the experiments. Then I send them off to think about how they're going to explain the concepts to a second grader or a fourth grader. They come up with incredible explanations and analogies. So, on Science Night, they're in charge of overseeing each experiment. They explain the concepts; they lead the discussion. I walk around and make sure everything's going smoothly and then, at the end of the night, I make ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

A big part of why we're there is to take the fear out of science and to show how fun and interesting it can be. This is important for the children, as well as for some of the parents. Working with the staff and PTO at Ryan Road has been great. Now I'm hoping to put together a Science Night manual with instructions and equipment lists so that other schools in the city can organize their own events.

Contact Us

The CCC is here to support faculty and staff, in many ways, helping to make connections with community partners, supporting student placements, and more. Please contact us to learn more about how we can support your teaching and research.