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Prof. Jomella Watson-Thompson, Service Learning to expand undergraduate experiential learning opportunities at KU

Monday, October 01, 2018

LAWRENCE — Six years ago the University of Kansas took the bold step of incorporating experiential learning into the new KU Core curriculum. Students responded, engaged and learned.

KU is one of the few public universities in the Association of American Universities to require experiential learning as part of completing the undergraduate curriculum. Now, the institution is ready to take efforts to a signature level.

“We would like to work toward a goal of every graduate having hands-on opportunities to connect their academic engagement to the world beyond the classroom through activities like study abroad, internships, undergraduate research and service learning. A signature experience for every undergraduate,” said DeAngela Burns-Wallace, vice provost for undergraduate studies. Experiential learning denotes a rigorous learning experience, occurring within a community setting (e.g., professional, artistic, scientific, scholarly, local) and integrated as part of an academic degree program. This requires students take an active role in the learning process.     

To strengthen the experiential learning framework and collaboration, David Gaston has been named the assistant vice provost for experiential learning in undergraduate studies. Gaston will primarily focus on coordination and collaboration across experiential learning opportunities at KU, helping make these opportunities accessible for more students, and further integrating experiential learning into the university curriculum. KU’s support of experiential learning offers benefits to students. A growing body of research demonstrates that experiential learning enhances student learning, success in the classroom, on-time graduation and transition to the workforce. Employers continue to emphasize that graduates must be able to tackle real-world problems and use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to solve multifaceted problems without simple solutions.

Gaston will lead the Experiential Learning Collaborative, which will continue to bring together staff from the Center for Service Learning, the Office of Study Abroad, International Programs, University Career Center and the Center for Undergraduate Research. In addition, working with partners from across the university, such as KU Libraries and academic units, the Experiential Learning Collaborative will work to strategically develop, expand and promote experiential learning opportunities on campus and throughout the curriculum. 

“Experiential learning can have an enormous, positive influence on student achievement and success. We want to ensure students have the opportunities to engage in these activities,” Gaston said.

Joining the efforts is Associate Professor of Geology Alison Olcott, who has been named the director of the Center for Undergraduate Research. Olcott will maintain a 50 percent appointment in the Department of Geology. Building on the strong foundation the center has established, Olcott will develop new levels of faculty engagement and increase student engagement and accessibility. 

“Our goal in the center is that every undergraduate student has the chance to experience authentic research, either in a classroom or one-on-one with a professor,” Olcott said. “Not every student has the time or inclination to mount a full-fledged independent project, but all students should be able to recognize that by studying at KU they are part of the scholarly conversations occurring in their fields.” 

To round out this new leadership team, Jomella Watson-Thompson will join the Center for Service Learning as the senior faculty associate. Watson-Thompson, associate professor of applied behavioral science, has developed extensive service-learning and community-engaged scholarship and partnerships throughout her career. 

“Dr. Watson-Thompson’s extensive experience will provide additional opportunities for KU students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to a professional setting while benefiting the local community,” Burns-Wallace said.

A renewed commitment to expand and build upon the successes of experiential learning gives KU students a new means to stand out.

“Providing each student the opportunity for hands-on experiences in and beyond the classroom is an essential element in ensuring students not only succeed at KU but that they develop a competitive advantage as they prepare for their next steps upon graduation,” said Interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Carl Lejuez. “The potential is limitless, and the opportunity is upon us.”

About David Gaston

Gaston is a higher education veteran in the areas of career services, communications, athletics and leadership development. He has led the University Career Center since 2004. Also at KU, Gaston established a student communications office in support of 20 departments within the division of Student Success. Prior to KU, Gaston worked at the University of Mississippi, where he served as the assistant director of recruiting and instructor in the Ole Miss Career Center and as the director of administrative operations for the men’s basketball program. Gaston has served in numerous roles with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), including co-chairing the Diversity Research Team and the Leadership Strategy and Sourcing Committee. Additionally, he is co-chairing and co-hosting the Global Careers Summit 2019 meeting in Toronto. He has presented at numerous conferences, including the Global Careers Summit, NACE, and several state and regional association conferences.

About Alison Olcott

Olcott joined KU in 2008 as an assistant professor in the geology department. She maintains two different active funded research programs. One program uses chemical techniques to understand biological and environmental processes in places and times that do not preserve more traditional types of fossils; the other program investigates how highly effective educational processes can be integrated into STEM classes to improve student learning, success and retention, particularly for students from populations that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. In addition to providing research experiences to undergraduate and graduate students in her lab and classes, she has worked with multiple campus partners to improve students’ educational experiences across the university. From 2015-2018 she was a faculty fellow in the Office of First-Year Experience, focusing on First-Year Seminars. She received her bachelor’s degree with honors from the University of Chicago, her doctorate from the University of Southern California, and she was a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

About Jomella Watson-Thompson

Watson-Thompson is a leader in community-engaged scholarship and community-based participatory approaches. She is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Behavioral Science and associate director for the Center for Community Health & Development at KU. Previously, she served as a faculty fellow and faculty ambassador with the Center for Service Learning. Her research uses a community-based participatory approach to address community health and development issues such as adolescent substance abuse and community and youth violence prevention. She researches and promotes collaboration and community academic partnerships as an approach to foster sustainable change and improvement in communities. Watson-Thompson has received numerous awards related to her contributions to support community-engaged scholarship and service learning, has numerous publications in the area of community engagement and has extensive experience providing training, technical support, consultation and evaluation for community-based initiatives. She earned a bachelor of arts in urban studies from Jackson State University, a masters of urban planning and a doctorate in behavioral psychology, both from KU.

Questions about the Graduate Program?

If you have questions about our graduate program, please contact Dr. Derek Reed, Director of Graduate Studies, at dreed@ku.edu

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