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Students 'psyched' for community action

By Alexandra Wertz '12
February 21, 2011

“One of my goals was to get students more involved in after-school activities,” says Erin Nordstrand '12, pictured here outside her Northfield Middle School classroom. “If we helped prevent kids from going home to their typical TV routine, I would check off this project as a successful endeavor.”

St. Olaf Professor of Psychology Dana Gross understands college students. They need academic credits to graduate, they are thirsty for hands-on experience, and they want to do some good in the local community. That’s why Gross created a new course she calls Community Applications of Psychology. It was made possible with the help of the Bringing Theory to Practice grant project created by Nate Jacobi, associate director of civic engagement at the college’s Center for Experiential Learning.

The month-long course during January involved 24 total hours of in-class learning in addition to 32 total hours of service-learning activities through local nonprofits. Based on their interests, students chose from Northfield YMCA, Faribault Early Childhood and Family Education, Growing Up Healthy, the Middle School Youth Center, Laura Baker Services, and ARTech School.

“The course is meant to be a hybrid, multifaceted way of learning,” Gross says. “It’s not just the research you do in the library — it’s connecting that research with a personal, relevant experience. Both parts are really important, and they inform each other.”

Erin Nordstrand '12 was placed at the Northfield Middle School Youth Center to develop an after-school curriculum for middle school students. Nordstrand, along with two of her classmates, implemented and led the programs, ultimately assessing them based on their effectiveness in engaging the students.

Excited for school
“I hoped to prepare a curriculum that got kids excited about coming to school every day and made them feel an integral part of their school's community,” Nordstrand says. “One of my goals was to get students more involved in after-school activities. If we helped prevent kids from going home to their typical TV routine, I would check off this project as a successful endeavor.”

The class demanded creative energy from the St. Olaf students. “One day we played dodgeball and the next was a cooking class, so it was an interesting challenge to continuously innovate better, more exciting activities,” Nordstrand says.

Another student in Gross’ class, Kirsten Petersen '11, was a project mentor for ARTech seniors and saw the site experience as an opportunity to better understand her own vocation and career options. “I am considering becoming a teacher or school counselor someday, so it was helpful to get a better picture from the inside about how a school is run, the expectations for students, and the roles of teachers,” Petersen says.

In addition to achieving personal goals and considering career options, Gross hoped the students developed greater interest in the neighborhood. “I hoped that the students learned more about their community, that they understood where it is that they’re going to school. Before this class, they might not even have known these places existed.”

Community engagement is the core value at the heart of this kind of learning. Jacobi attests to the importance of community service through courses such as Gross’. “Students are often motivated to serve others, so they are motivated by opportunities to apply what they are learning in collaboration with community organizations,” Jacobi says. “Academic civic engagement also fosters in students the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that will serve them in future civic and work roles.”

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or