Robert Kirby, director of the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU), and his team support around 120 research fellow projects per year. Kirby considers his department to be at the intersection of community-based engagement and research.
"Our focus is on students involved in research," Kirby said. "We want to highlight and focus on how community engagement and research can be one in the same thing."
Kirby's office does this through the ICRU Fellowship Program, which directly awards money through scholarship funds to students involved in mentored research with faculty and staff.
The research involves going out into the community, learning what the community needs, and then finding ways to match those needs with the university's skillsets. Researchers and students will work together to find an approach that answers the questions that the community has.
"There are good teaching moments for a lot of our students in doing that," Kirby said.
Logan Drake was a student working on an engagement project with the Iowa City Community School District looking at some of the disparities in educational opportunities for underrepresented students. Drake worked with a faculty member from the sociology department to create a summary that included lessons learned about difficulties, drawbacks, and things that the district could improve.
Drake had initially planned to go to law school after graduation, but his experience working with the school district was so impactful that he decided to pursue education instead.
"He saw that he could have an impact in a way that mattered to him," Kirby said. "His experience with community engagement completely changed his trajectory."
The Health and Human Physiology department has a community health section that gives students experience working with health-related topics. Members of the community can go to them with a problem, and students will look at ways to impact it.
One community engagement project involved working with the immigrant population in Iowa City, which has struggled to raise vaccine rates in response to the pandemic.
"One of our students is working with community partners to see how we can help this underrepresented group become more comfortable with the idea of getting vaccinated," Kirby said.
Some student engagement projects involve partnering with the State Archeologists Office.
"The director, John Doershuk, has worked with us for many years," Kirby said. "I have two students involved on a dig at Lake Macbride."
Doershuk and his team research with the State of Iowa and have students work with him every summer. Students work on sites throughout the state, working in parks and on road projects.
In Iowa City, engaged researchers and students are working with local synagogues and community partners to share the history of Judaism and the local Jewish community while telling the story of Anne Frank for the planting of a tree sapling next spring.
"These are things that do benefit the community," Kirby said. "Through the efforts of the faculty - and the knowledge they have - they go out and improve the lives of individuals in the community through the work of our students."
Through engagement experiences, students gain firsthand knowledge while applying skills learned in the classroom. At the same time, students become aware that they have something to offer and how they can work with others and build confidence.
Kirby said that community engagement efforts started around 2000 when students came together to form the 'James Gang,' a group named after William James, an American pragmatist and philosopher from the mid-late 1800s. The group created the 'James Gang' around the idea of engaging the community.
"The group got together every week and formed a class and talked about different projects that they would like to do," Kirby said. "One of the outgrowths of that was a group called Public Space One, which is still ongoing today."
Public Space One was the driving community partner behind the recent Black Lives Matter mural painted on the Capitol City parking garage downtown in Iowa City. A collection of art students worked with local artists to get public input on what they felt the mural needed to express.
"It helped me realize just how important the role of the University could be in serving the community in a broad, broad manner," Kirby said.
Kirby encouraged faculty to consider adding community-engaged courses to their classroom experiences, which he said are not as difficult or time-consuming as some might think.
"Look at some of the other examples that are out there," Kirby said. "More often than not, it's a lot easier than you expect it will be. Please don't put up roadblocks in your mind before looking at ways to make it happen.
Many faculty members on campus can help and give examples of what they have done to weave community engagement into their classes.
Kirby said that for students, signing up for a community-engaged class is an easy decision. They are looking to take courses that help address students' questions about how to make a difference.
"It's extremely straightforward in their mind," Kirby said. "And it's fun. They want to use the skills they have to serve others and be helpful."
Story by James Dykeman