Stepping into History: Robert Morris University Stepping into History | Robert Morris University

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WRITTEN BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH

Their names are legendary: Harpers Ferry, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Antietam. But for many people, including students, that’s all they are – names.

Maybe they’ve read about them in class and learned how Gettysburg marked the turning point in the war, or that Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. But to truly comprehend the significance of these places – places that helped shaped the America we know today – you really have to see them in person and take it all in, first-hand. 

And that’s exactly what students did in RMU’s Civil War Study Tour. Led by associate professor of history Daniel P. Barr,Ph.D., the highlight of this mostly online course was a five-day tour from May 2-5 that took students to important Civil War locations, including Harpers Ferry, W. Va.; Richmond, Cold Harbor, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg in Virginia; Sharpsburg, Md., and Gettysburg, Pa.

Highlights included guided tours and interactive learning experiences at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, the Museum of the Confederacy, the White House of the Confederacy, Antietam National Battlefield, and the Gettysburg Cyclorama at the national park’s new museum and visitor center. Students even had the opportunity to investigate the supernatural side of the war during a guided Gettysburg ghost hunt at the Farnsworth House Inn, which the Travel Channel called "one of the most haunted inns in America."

The online component of the course was specifically formatted to mirror the tour itself. In the weeks leading up to the tour, students completed reading assignments and online activities designed to familiarize them with the places they’d be visiting. Students were also required to contribute and respond to daily blogs and complete a brief opinion paper following the tour.

“It has long been understood in the historical profession that there is no better way to learn about an important event than to walk the ground where that event occurred,” says Barr. “Students and teachers alike can and should read about history, talk about the events, and even view maps or photographs, but there is nothing quite like visiting the location where that history unfolded. It allows for an entirely different perspective about what happened, and more importantly, why.”

The Civil War history tour is just one example of the kinds of engaged learning opportunities that the School of Education and Social Sciences offers its students each year.

“RMU believes that active, hands-on learning is just as important as traditional, in-class education,” says the school’s dean, John E. Graham, Ed.D. “That’s why our school strives to provide students with a number of opportunities to get engaged outside of the classroom.”

Each spring, Daniel J. Shelley, Ph.D., professor of education and coordinator of RMU’s elementary education program, accompanies students to Aruba, where they have opportunities to apply in-class learning to real-world situations. RMU student teachers spend eight weeks at the International School of Aruba, which boasts a U.S.-accredited university preparatory program with a focus on leadership, character, and community service. “We put an emphasis on community service via student organizations, activities, and with teachers as models who are actively engaged in the community,” says headmaster Paul D. Sibley on the school’s Web page, echoing a sentiment that is central to RMU’s curriculum.

Tammy Senge ’05, M’08, has been working there full time since last summer. “Teaching students from all over the world has been an awesome challenge and great learning experience,” says Senge. “RMU has given me the tools to be able to create a curriculum to meet the needs of ISA's diverse population.”

RMU is currently working on a similar student-teacher program in Belmopan, the capital of the Central American nation of Belize. “We’re very excited about his new program,” says Shelley. “Building this program to the level of that in Aruba will allow us to expand our student teacher program to more and more countries around the world.” In April, Shelley, along with Brooke Beatty ’10 and Melissa Javens ’10, traveled to the Lady of Guadalupe Elementary School in Belize for a two-week test run of the program. It was the first time in the school’s history that they hosted American student teachers.

RMU students are getting some great hands-on experience stateside as well. In Philadelphia, they take part in the Philadelphia Urban Seminar, a cooperative program between the Pennsylvania Academy for the Profession of Teaching and Learning and the School District of Philadelphia. This two-week experience takes place during their junior/senior year and gives students experience in inner-city classrooms. “The seminar gives our students exposure to a culture that is very different than what many of them are used to,” says Shelley. “For many of them, it’s a life-changing experience.”

During the seminar, students take part in a community activity project and attend professional development seminars conducted by Philadelphia teachers. They also keep a daily log of their experience, write a reaction paper, and participate in a group presentation on an assigned topic. As a result, they gain valuable teaching experience that will give them an advantage when they graduate.

“This program is very exciting and unique,” says Kristen Lawrence, a secondary education/social studies major. “I am always looking for ways to be a better and more multi-faceted teacher. The urban seminar is a wonderful opportunity and one that will equip me with more in-depth teaching strategies and an enhanced resume.”

RMU’s School of Education and Social Sciences offers a number of engaged learning experiences aimed at enhancing the education of its students. Assistant professor Mary A. Hansen, Ph.D., leads students on a collaborative service learning experience in conjunction with Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania and a local school district, in which the students serve as mentors to high school girls. Each summer, assistant professor Philip J. Harold, Ph.D., leads a study trip to Israel that serves as an overview of the history and politics of the state and includes an 11-day visit to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Nazareth. Psychology professor Stephen T. Paul, Ph.D., takes his students to the Pittsburgh Zoo, where they study operant conditioning among the animals. Paul also leads a trip to the supposedly haunted Moundsville State Prison in West Virginia, as part of his Psychology of Paranormal Beliefs class. All student trips are sponsored by the Dean’s Fund for Excellence.

“The many engaged learning experiences in which our students participate provide opportunities for them to enhance the quality of their chosen degree,” says Graham. “It broadens their vision by encouraging positive interactions beyond the classroom and enables them to see and apply first-hand what they learned through their academic studies." 

View the collection of photos from this trip on the RMU Flickr Page