Engaging Students To Impact Change

February 28, 2008

"My son makes the highest grades in his class," boasts Mrs. Martinez, a young mother waiting for her English lessons to begin at Caesar Chavez Middle School just across I-35 from Baylor. "His teacher sends home a note for me to sign every six weeks saying how proud I should be." 
Dr. Randy Wood, BA '70, PhD '78, coordinator of Baylor's LEAF (Learning English Among Friends) Chapter, thinks this sounds more than a little suspicious. "That's remarkable," replies Wood. "May I see it the next time your son brings one home?" 
A week later, the smiling Mrs. Martinez brings in her son's latest deficiency report. Wood solemnly informs her that her son is failing two subjects. Slowly, tears begin to roll down the mother's transfigured face. 
"I am the worst parent in the world," she utters in broken English. 
Wood, director of "Hispanic Families in Transition," one of Baylor's three new Engaged Learning Groups (ELGs), recounts the unfortunately common story of failed communication to 49 attentive freshmen. These students signed up to be a part of a new Living and Learning Community, where those with diverse majors live in close proximity and engage in learning opportunities with their peers and professors outside the classroom. Students in ELGs can earn one hour of credit in each of their first four semesters, giving them an early understanding of the benefits of research and hands-on experience. 
"Our group is for students who want to learn how they can make a difference in the world of today and tomorrow, who want to actually touch what they are studying, and who are interested in matching class work with everyday life," says Wood. 
"Hispanic Families in Transition" students are focusing on literacy, education and poverty; the fourth semester culminates in a final research project. As a result, students will receive credit for English 1304 "Thinking, Writing, and Research," a required course for all undergraduates. 
"In this ELG, we are introducing students to the idea that they can be collaborators in research earlier in their college career than is normally done," says Douglas Rogers, BS '78, interim associate dean for student and information services. "To become better consumers of research, students need to know how they are impacted by data in their daily lives. They need to read and understand what data is and how it can be accurately used to represent a picture or idea." 
Dr. Kenneth Van Treuren, professor of mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering and Computer Science, Dr. Ian Gravagne, assistant professor, engineering and computer science, and Dr. Larry Lehr, MS '85, senior lecturer, environmental science, are leading the ELG "Energy and Society: The Cost and Benefits of an Energy-Dependent Civilization." Leading the ELG "Film and Global Culture" are Chris Hansen, assistant professor, communication studies, Dr. James Kendrick, BA '96, MA '99, assistant professor, communication studies, and Xin Wang, MS '98, EDD '02, assistant professor, Baylor Interdisciplinary Core. Nearly 150 freshmen are enrolled in the ELGs.
Dr. Truell Hyde, MS '80, PhD '88, vice provost for research, says that much of the exciting research happens at interdisciplinary crossroads, not in the "old silos" where everyone stayed in their own departments. "The ELGs are a way to shove that to the forefront and prime the students to begin a research initiative because they are being taught the fundamentals: to think outside the box, to come up with an agenda and test it."
Wood adds that more opportunities are developing for undergraduates across campus. "Our students' ELG experience should give them confidence in approaching a faculty member to ask to be a part of that faculty member's research agenda."
Wood's ELG is not only a research initiative; leaders emphasize the rich community experience for which Baylor is highly regarded. As part of the experience, Wood, Rogers and Dr. Mona Choucair, BA '86, PhD '00, Lecturer in English and in education, are teaching the group about Hispanic culture while the students work in correspondence with LEAF, a nationally recognized program that aids Hispanic families who want to learn English. Choucair says that these experiences spark students' research interests while impacting local families.
"The work done by these ELG students will help to forward the several years of work that has already begun regarding Hispanic families moving into Central Texas and their growth and use of English as a result of language study," says Choucair.
By going to local middle school campuses and building relationships with parents on a weekly basis, the freshmen have a unique opportunity to study the acquisition of language skills while helping people to understand the value of American education and what it can mean to help families out of poverty. 
At the end of the initial class meeting, Wood extends an open invitation for a trip this summer to Honduras, where students will have the opportunity to teach English and math in three bilingual schools with extremely limited resources. As the students trickle out the door, Wood's eyes are glistening with inspiration. 
"A young man had just asked if his uncle could help out with the Honduras project; his company donates playground equipment to schools," says Wood. "And this is only in the first day of class."