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Carnegie Foundation recognizes NIU’s excellence in providing opportunities for engaged learning

January 7, 2011

An announcement this week from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching confirmed what most at Northern Illinois University already knew: NIU excels in providing students opportunities for engaged learning.

“NIU always has prided itself on working to ensure that the knowledge we share and produce is relevant and enhances the world around us,” said NIU President John Peters. “This Carnegie designation validates our success in doing so. It places us as amongst the leaders in aligning our mission and resources with the needs of the communities we serve. It should be a source of pride to us all.”

Tuesday’s announcement makes NIU one of only 311 colleges and universities in the nation to meet Carnegie’s criteria for curricular engagement. The university met the criteria for Outreach and Partnerships in 2008.  Many were surprised that the university did not get the curricular engagement designation during that initial application process.

“Engaged learning is absolutely ingrained in what our faculty, students and administrators do every day here at NIU, and has been for decades. So much so that we sort of take it for granted.” said Julia Spears, who oversees Engaged Learning Initiatives for the university. “When we began to analyze the application process this time, we realized that what had been lacking previously was a unified definition of what engaged learning is.”

To overcome that hurdle, it was decided that NIU would define “engaged learning” as activities that fit with the ten high impact practices outlined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  Many examples of such activities — like undergraduate research, service learning, first year experiences, internships, and study abroad opportunities, align with the action items of the NIU Great Journeys strategic plan.

With the definition in place, a committee consisting of Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver, Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Development Virginia Cassidy, Associate Vice Provost David Chagnon, Vice President for Administration and Outreach Anne Kaplan, Assistant to the Vice President for Administration and Outreach Marilyn Bellert and Spears began seeking out examples.

The committee solicited and received input from every academic department on campus and ultimately found that, last year alone, 5 percent of all university classes (515 classes in all, spread across 25 departments) incorporated a service or engaged learning component. There were so many examples – available to students ranging from incoming freshmen to doctoral students that one of the most difficult parts of the Carnegie application process was selecting the best examples to include from the hundreds that existed, Spears said.

The university excelled in multiple categories analyzed by Carnegie:

  • Undergraduate research. In the spring of 2010 more than 180 students participated in the university’s first-ever Undergraduate Research Day, showcasing research into promising cancer treatments, ways to use algae to create bio-fuel and designs for fuel efficient vehicles, etc. Many of the students worked side-by-side with professors and got to publish in scholarly journals or present at conferences.
  • Internships/Co-op. Virtually every major offered at NIU includes opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience through internships or co-op programs. Examples include art students partnering with K-12 schools across the region to kinesiology students working in athletic training settings.
  • Study Abroad. Many NIU study abroad programs incorporate experiential learning. For instance, anthropology students can do fieldwork in Sicily, Cambodia, Kenya and Peru, while audiology students have traveled to Taiwan to provide hearing services in orphanages.
  • Engagement opportunities across the spectrum. Students have opportunities for engaged learning from freshman year through graduate school.

While the university has provided such opportunities for decades, they are particularly valuable today, said NIU Vice Provost Seaver.

“Today’s students are hungry for engaged learning,” Seaver said. “Not only because it enriches their learning, but also because the skills that they learn from those experiences – problem solving, the ability to work in teams, how to communicate – are in great demand by employers.”

NIU previously earned the Carnegie certification for Outreach and Partnerships, which recognized the university’s dedication to applying institutional resources for the betterment of the community, and for its many partnerships aimed at creating the exchange, exploration and application of knowledge, information and resources for the mutual benefit of the university and the community.

“The Outreach and Partnerships designation recognized activities that incorporate students but not necessarily for course credit,” explains Anne Kaplan, NIU vice president for Administration and Outreach. “This award demonstrates that we not only work to better our region, we take full advantage of it by exposing our students to the opportunities made possible by our location in one of the most dynamic regions of the country.”