Onboarding: Converging on Impactful, Reciprocal Collaborations

The Onboarding Red House blog series orients all who are new to the Red House and its work. This week’s onboarding post was written by Dr. Matt Pavesich, a Red House Senior Faculty Fellow. Matt introduces the Convergence Labs, multidisciplinary collaborations, organized under Georgetown’s Capitol Applied Learning Labs, that offer students new applied learning opportunities. Convergence Labs bring faculty, staff, and students together to tackle complex challenges.

It’s Thursday afternoon at Georgetown’s Capitol Applied Learning Labs, and clusters of folks are working together in one of the newly designed collaborative workspaces. In one corner, 2 students conduct a lively focus group with 10 community members. In another corner, a faculty member and 2 more students revise a press release announcing an important upcoming event. And in the center of the room are 4 faculty members, 10 students, and 2 executives from a local non-profit, all moving pieces around on their whiteboard diagram labeled “the big strategy.” Everyone is working together -- on different aspects of one big project -- to intervene in a complex issue of local importance -- regional voter registration and turnout, maybe, or the environmental justice implications of a proposed riverfront development.

So what’s the big deal? Even if it’s not an everyday occurrence, it’s common enough that students, professors, and community partners come together in various configurations at universities across the country. The difference is that here at the Red House we are working to create amplified applied learning opportunities, which integrate all that universities have learned over the years about applied and experiential learning. From the student perspective, this would include, “[f]rom study abroad . . . the value of cognitive dissonance that often accompanies immersive aspects of the situated learning removed from the ‘bubble’ of the typical university campus. From service learning . . . opportunities to work in authentic settings with real-world partners. From internships and practicum programs . . . work[ing] collaboratively in professional environments, ones that often feature mentor-novice pairings.”*

The Red House aims to build Convergence Labs, our name for research and design teams of students, faculty, and community and industry partners. At their core, these teams enact convergences of human intellect and university resources with the aim of intervening in complex social problems. By design, Convergence Labs will integrate research, teaching, and community engagement, with the key innovation that Convergence Labs will change the terms of participation by grounding the formation of each project and project team in the principle of mutual reciprocity.

Programs that inspired us:

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    Beautiful Social
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    XLabs at JMU
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    Bass Connections at Duke
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    Public Works initiative at Carleton College
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    Fair Trade Compact

Students, instead of taking an traditional 3 credit academic course with the added layer of an experiential component, will act as equal, if junior, members of a project team and receive academic credit for that work. The experience will include applying prior classroom learning to contexts that test that knowledge, acquiring new knowledge that comes from working on complex problems outside of the classroom, and building working relationships with local professionals, faculty, and members of the community.

Faculty, instead of teaching a course and then also bringing students to a space where they can observe or apply that knowledge outside of the classroom, will also act as equal, if senior, members of a project team and receive credit toward their teaching load in return for participation. The experience will include working in partnership with local professionals and students, applying expertise in impactful new contexts, and gaining new and different visibility for one’s work.

Community and industry partners, instead of hosting students and giving more than they receive in return for their participation, will occupy a role somewhere between client and collaborator, acting as embedded expert practitioners on the team whose organizational goals will be furthered by their participation. The experience will include establishing productive new partnerships with faculty and students, gaining visibility for the organization’s core mission, and making progress through collaboration.

What will it take to create Convergence Labs at Georgetown? Quite a few incremental innovations, but their precedents emerged in prior Red House projects and collaborations. As the Red House moves into its second half-decade of existence, its successes in the first allow increasingly innovative and ambitious projects like Convergence Labs to develop.

We will need to . . .

Task

Existing Precedent

Create relationships with partners interested in forming project teams, including campus partners and organizations external to the University. These partnerships in and of themselves will shape the complex problems for each project team.

The Red House has existing relationships forged through its work over the last 5 years, including with Martha’s Table, the Kennedy Center, and a wide variety of organizations that have hosted internships, and summer projects.

Develop agreements with academic units in which participating students receive course credit for working on a project team. Preferably, these credits will count toward major requirements, rather than floating credits.

Some units on campus already grant academic credit towards a major for internships in combination with courses like an academic internship seminar (link to NHS curriculum, history course), and the Capitol Applied Learning Labs has taken Georgetown’s largest step forward in terms of offering students academic credit for experiential and applied learning.

Create the supportive infrastructure that enables faculty to participate as members of the project team rather than in traditional instructional roles.

Prior projects like the Studio Collaborative, CoLabs, and GUVIEW have involved faculty members in hybridized instructional roles, but there will be work to do on this front.

Of course there will be lots of work necessary to get something like Convergence Labs off the ground, including efforts beyond what’s named in the chart above, such as recruiting individual participants, developing plans and models for how Lab teams will work together, and figuring out how we’ll evaluate the success of such projects. But we’re at the beginning, and the ideas and tasks laid out here constitute the building blocks of Convergence Labs to come.

This is just the first post of what I hope will be a series devoted to the development of Convergence Labs at Georgetown’s Capitol Applied Learning Labs. Stay tuned for progress updates, fresh developments, and ruminations on how we hope to push the boundaries of experiential and applied learning. We believe that we can draw on the very best of existing experiential and applied learning models in order to create transformative opportunities for students, faculty, and partners. And most importantly -- if they work as planned -- the Convergence Labs will also create measurable impact on the common good, all through a characteristic Red House approach: leveraging incremental curricular innovations and partnerships with people, strategically investing in ways that help members of our community pursue their work in ways that excite them, and thinking inclusively about how to bring the University and the community together.

*From Philip Motley’s “.The Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation ,” published online by the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University.
Dr. Matthew Pavesich

Dr. Matthew Pavesich

Matt specializes in writing + rhetoric, pedagogy, and the public humanities. His work at the Red House advances experiential learning opportunities for all students across campus.


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