New student laboratory encourages civic engagement

Penn State Brandywine recently established the Laboratory for Civic Engagement to encourage leadership among students and develop scholarship in the community while promoting citizenship on a local-to-global level. This initiative will allow students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members to work together to achieve these goals.

Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin, who was chosen to lead this new initiative, said she hopes the laboratory will "unify our programming and communication on campus along the lines of volunteering, service learning, civic engagement and public scholarship." She also noted that goals of the laboratory tie into Penn State's mission as Pennsylvania's only land-grant University.

David Rosenberg, a 1974 Penn State graduate, made the Laboratory for Civic Engagement possible through a generous donation. Last year, he and his wife, Marjorie, established the David M. and Marjorie D. Rosenberg Fund for Community and Civic Engagement, which fosters responsible citizenship among Brandywine students through active participation in the community.

The Laboratory is already off and running and several important projects have formed under its umbrella. Among these was the TEDxPSU Watch Party held last fall. The event, which is based upon the notion of sharing ideas worth spreading, encouraged dialogue among students about current events and issues facing society. TEDxPSU was a perfect example of students working together with faculty to raise awareness of local and global issues—the planning committee for the event was comprised of two students and two faculty members from the campus, including Guertin.

In addition, programs such as Constitution Day and Operation Military Haiku provided the campus community a forum for expressing free speech while acknowledging the service of veterans.

"Civic Issues in a Minute," an online and VoiceThread-based program that provides listeners with a short audio clip introducing a topic that impacts citizens, is yet another ongoing Laboratory project. Participants can add their own comments, thus creating an atmosphere of logic and reasonable debate that can lead to action and answers, Guertin explained.

Knittany Lion Needleworks, a group comprised of both campus and community members who knit, crochet and sew items for donation, also falls under the umbrella of the Laboratory for Civic Engagement. In 2011 alone, the group donated more than 2,000 handmade items to 13 different organizations, including ConKerr Cancer, Chester County Hospital and, most recently, the Pennsylvania Special Olympics. Students have been so involved they have made Knittany Lion Needleworks an official student club.

"The projects we work on for Knittany Lion Needleworks always involve giving back to the community," said senior American studies major Eileen Fresta, of West Chester. "It's a great way to volunteer if you can't give up an entire day to volunteer for a cause. With the knitting projects, you can fit the volunteer work into your own schedule."

Becoming civically engaged is not just about volunteering outside of the classroom—the experience should extend and overlap with course curricula, Guertin said. Several years ago, the campus created a minor in civic and community engagement to encourage this connection between student participation in public service or problem-based fieldwork with their work in the classroom.

Students in Guertin's environmental studies class are also seeing the connection. Sophomore international relations major Sarah DeMartino, of Downingtown, is actively engaged in fair trade issues through the course. According to DeMartino, the students in the class had originally set out to make Penn State Brandywine the first Fair Trade campus in the Penn State system, meaning products used at Brandywine would comply with Fair Trade USA standards, which ensure workers who provide the goods are justly compensated. However, "Fair Trade USA had lowered its standards for fair trade," she said. "At first, we wanted to become certified under Fair Trade USA, but we are changing our approach in light of these new facts."

The newly formed volunteer service club, We Are Penn State M.A.D.E. (Making A Difference Everyday), will offer a different service opportunity every month to meet the diverse needs of the students as well as the community, Guertin said. In addition, the establishment of a volunteer opportunity database is being developed by a group of seniors majoring in Information Science and Technology with input by the Laboratory and the Office of Student Affairs.

 "It is important to promote volunteering and to show others it's fun to volunteer and serve with and for the greater community," Guertin said. She also called her work with the Laboratory both enjoyable and a challenge. "We look forward to expanding on what we have already begun."