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Learning communities

Imagine spending a term at Augustana studying the nature of the mind and “personhood” from the combined perspectives of philosophy and behavioral neuroscience—and then jetting off to Leipzig, Germany, to discuss those questions with leading researchers at the prestigious Max Planck Institutes.

Or how about a term studying the history and psychology of religious pilgrimages, and then traveling to northern Spain to take part in the Camino de Santiago, one of the most popular and durable of all pilgrimages?

Welcome to the overseas learning communities, Augustana style.

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Dr. Megan Havard on the Camino de Santiago. Havard, an assistant professor of Spanish, and Dr. Jessica Schultz, assistant professor of psychology, will lead a learning community of 15-20 students here.

What are called "learning communities" have been around for a while. They typically involve combining two or more courses in different academic disciplines to approach topics in new ways, creating synergies among students with different majors and backgrounds.

Image removed. Allen Bertsche

"That's the big key: that it's interdisciplinary and also touches on different ways of learning, whether it's through direct experience, internship, classroom learning or projects that students complete," explained Dr. Allen Bertsche, Augustana's director of International & Off-campus Programs.

Augustana has offered learning communities for more than 10 years, and in recent years has added an overseas experience. Some are for a full trimester, such as a popular spring term in Ireland that next year will combine courses in Irish literature and folk tradition, biology/natural history and Irish music.

However, a full term abroad does not work for all students, such as those who have commitments in sports, music or other activities, Dr. Bertsche said. So the college has developed learning communities that involve a trimester on campus followed by two or three weeks abroad during a break.

The nature of these programs is limited only by the imaginations of faculty members who bring ideas to Dr. Bertsche, who then helps create the combinations that provide unique learning experiences. These programs so far have taken students to Italy, Greece, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Jamaica and other destinations.

Two upcoming overseas learning communities involving trips to Spain and Germany help illuminate the possibilities.

Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago learning community will involve a course with Dr. Megan Havard, assistant professor of Spanish, and one with Dr. Jessica Schultz, assistant professor of psychology. Fifteen to 20 students will participate.

Dr. Havard studies medieval Spain, and will lead students through the history of the Camino de Santiago, which means "Way of St. James." The destination of the pilgrimage is the 13th century cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, which is said to house the remains of St. James the Great, one of Jesus's apostles. The pilgrimage to Santiago predates even the construction of that cathedral.

Course materials will include 12th-century douments related to the Camino de Santiago, as well as a study of the pilgrimage as a modern phenomenon that draws both spiritual seekers and tourists from all over the world. Dr. Havard also asked some of her colleagues for recommendations to bolster the reading list.

Dr. Schultz's course, called psychology of religions and spirituality, will look at research on why people are drawn to spirituality, the role it plays in their lives and why people are drawn to seek out a journey such as the Camino de Santiago.

"We both agree that we'd like to sit in on each other's classes as much as possible," Dr. Havard said.

At the end of the spring trimester, the students will hike 170 miles in 14 days in Spain, culminating in Santiago de Compostela. Along the way they will research sites and local customs, present to fellow students, mingle with other hikers and write about the experience.


The learning community traveling to Leipzig, Germany, will involve coursework from Dr. Heidi Storl, philosophy professor, and Dr. Ian Harrington, assistant professor of psychology, on the human mind and behavioral neuroscience. Once in Leipzig, researchers will make presentations to the class, as well as socialize with students, Dr. Storl said. Students also will spend time at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center, also called Pongoland, at the Leipzig Zoo. Pongoland is part of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

"The key to these is providing students with unique opportunities that simply aren't possible in a campus environment, whether that's hiking along the Camino or visiting cutting-edge researchers in Germany," said Dr. Bertsche. "They're both an expansion upon what can be done on a college campus.

"And I think the idea of the learning community is that you incorporate that with a group of students who integrate the experience and share it with each other. Hopefully that creates a building of education as well, the different students in the group bringing their own perspectives to the things that are being discussed."

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