The Power of Learning Through Involvement
By Margaret Cox
When Computer Science Professor Joan Francioni arrived on campus in 1997, it didn’t take long for her to build connections between Winona State University students and the larger Winona community. Soon after her arrival, she jumped at the chance to collaborate with faculty at Saint Mary’s University on a federal grant to develop specialized software for visually impaired students.
As Francioni and her students interacted with members of the blind community, she realized that both groups were learning from each other. The focus had shifted to the many things that the visually impaired students could do, just in a different way. “My feelings about education changed at that point,” says Francioni. “It helped me recognize the power of learning through involvement in real-life, community-related projects.” This dramatic change in thinking inspired Francioni to try engaging university students in tangible, civic-minded activities as a way to broaden their learning experiences.
“I discovered that by encouraging students to apply the knowledge and skills they are learning in the classroom toward projects that benefit the community, their motivation changes,” she explains. “Rather than being solely concerned with their grades, they are focused on solving problems and challenges that benefit other members of the community. On their own, the students want to learn more for the sake of the cause… and they do!”
According to Francioni, it can be tricky to design a classroom project that is useful to the community, challenging to students, and able to be completed within a semester. Projects have ranged in scope from database and website development for the Women’s Resource Center in Winona, to teaching basic computer skills through Project FINE, a local non-profit organization that helps newcomers integrate into the community. The work has paid off exponentially, and in some ways that Francioni did not expect. “I have seen so many students grow by applying themselves to community projects,” says Francioni. “When they realize the sense of responsibility that comes with the privilege of education, it’s amazing!”
To further foster a sense of responsibility, Francioni has reached outside of the classroom as well. In addition to teaching, she also serves as the Chair of Winona State University’s Sustainability committee and is a faculty advisor for the Sustainability House student residence. The Sustainability House on Main Street was purchased and renovated for energy efficiency in 2011. It provides a home for students who wish to practice a sustainable lifestyle, promotes recycling and composting, and teaches sustainability to fellow classmates through campus-wide educational programs. “The house offers our greater community a visible structure that is both a testament to Winona State University’s commitment to sustainability, and also an example of things that can be done right in the middle of the city,” says Francioni.
Although Francioni has already accomplished a great deal, she continues to exhaust every potential learning opportunity. Currently, she is working with other faculty members to create an interdisciplinary curriculum based on community engagement, culminating with a service trip to developing nations to give students first-hand knowledge of social issues and responsibility.
Whether connecting people locally or internationally, Francioni is a firm believer that every individual has something to offer their community, and can learn by sharing their expertise. Francioni concluded, “It’s not just the social work or nursing fields… people in all disciplines and fields can connect to their communities through the use of their unique skills. Everyone benefits, and that’s really what creates a community!”