Making Greater Lafayette greater: Honors course tackles challenges, connects communities

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.—While Purdue students emerge after graduation as experts on their campus community, many have little knowledge about the areas surrounding their university.  In essence, they’re strangers to the very cities that depend on them.  Cities that are hungry to keep them here.  In many ways, it’s understandable. Student schedules are jam-packed, most lack transportation and some feel they’re just passing through—here one day, on to bigger things the next.

Professor Ilana Stonebraker works with HONR 299 students

But what if a class could change that mind-set? Could an education about community, improve that community? Could it form a lasting-bond?

Professor Ilana Stonebraker argues yes.  She devised an Honors College course, HONR 299: Making Greater Lafayette Greater, around those themes.

“I want to introduce students to the City of Lafayette, so they actually go there,” Stonebraker explained.  “I want to create a feeling of ownership over West Lafayette and Lafayette, so students feel like they are part of this community, that they aren’t just transient, that they truly have stakes in this area.”

Purdue Community Relations Director Mike Piggott says over the years the Wabash River has become a border students are reluctant to cross.  He believes it has inhibited their ability to become involved in the greater community.

“A number of people, including many of us at Purdue, are working to make the river a zipper to bring students and local residents together,” he said.  “This course appears to be a major step in that effort.  The more students know about the surrounding community, the more the community can benefit from the student dynamic.”

Stonebraker’s research focuses mainly on business, finance and economics, but her vision for Making Greater Lafayette Greater transcends marketing and bottom lines.  Instead, the Purdue Libraries faculty member is teaching students the principals of economic development, exposing them to the demographics and challenges of the area in which they live, then setting them loose to identify an existing problem and solve it in an interdisciplinary way. She found the perfect vehicle for that mission in the Honors College, where small courses and service learning are the norm.

“I wanted to use a wide range of perspectives in class, so I thought a cross-college course would allow people to come in with all sorts of knowledge to make improvements in varied ways,” Stonebraker said.

The class has students from a diverse set of personal experiences and majors; education, business, anthropology, materials engineering and psychology to name a few. Stonebraker says it has been fascinating to watch them work together to evaluate existing systems and tackle challenges.

“In some ways their majors are important, but also the students come from all sizes of cities and places,” she added.  “This class requires you to think about what you know about the city that you came from and how that relates to the city where you currently live.  I have one student from Chicago and their experience is different from the student who came from Ann Arbor, which is different from that of the student who grew up in West Lafayette.”

Making Greater Lafayette Greater brings in notable community members as guest speakers and leans heavily on field trips.  Students have visited startup incubators, coworking spaces and city beautification projects.  Their learning will culminate in a final project where they receive an imaginary $10 million dollar budget to solve a challenge impacting the residents of Greater Lafayette.

“They can choose something very systematic and massive,” Stonebraker said.  “They will either write a 10 page proposal for the cities of Lafayette and West Lafayette, or they can spend 18 hours doing service toward their project.”

Students have proposed art-filled bus stop shelters, work with aging populations, improved day care facilities and remedies for pot holes.  While the work is hypothetical, the buy in from the community is real.  Both Lafayette and West Lafayette are actively seeking student input to improve amenities and eliminate brain drain.

“The enthusiasm is huge from the community’s perspective,” said Stonebraker.  “For example, I talked to West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis on Tuesday about this class and he was there on Thursday, he was completely on board.  Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski is also very committed to this process, suggesting guest speakers and field trip sites.”

The class concept has been so successful, it’s earned Stonebraker a prestigious award in her field.  She’s been named to the 2017 Library Journal Movers and Shakers list, which recognizes up and coming individuals from all around the world who are making a difference, impacting the library field in an innovative and creative way.

According to Stonebraker, Making Greater Lafayette Greater is just scratching the surface of what’s possible.  She says there are more partnerships to explore, challenges to consider and a motivated batch of students ready to get to work.

“It’s more like coaching a team than teaching a class, and I’m really surprised by how deep our bench goes in terms of the experiences that the students have,” Stonebraker said.  “They’re talking about other groups they’ve worked with in the past, they’re setting up meetings.  They’re a committed group outside of this and they entered this class because some of them were already making a difference.”

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