The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is uniquely located on the edge of a complicated city: both close to everything and in the center of nothing at all. For most students, their education starts and ends in the classroom, and there are few opportunities to connect school experiences to the wider world of Baltimore and the national landscape.
Last year, one of my classes offered extra credit for visiting a museum in D.C. I was initially excited about the chance to get out of the classroom and use what I had been learning in the real world, but concerns about transportation, cost and scheduling ended up preventing me from going.
Frustrated with these structural barriers and bored of the purely abstract (and at times useless) learning that characterizes university life, I sought out a service-learning position with the Shriver Center, only to discover that these positions are uncredited and unpaid. As a full-time student with work and family obligations, I — and many others like me — cannot afford to give up another 15 hours a week for difficult labor without receiving academic credit or payment.
Yet without these opportunities to engage with the community, students can spend a full four years at UMBC without feeling any connection to the city in which they live. Humanities majors learn about history and social processes without ever getting to see them in person, while STEM majors’ research often never leaves academic spaces.
Some fields encourage the practical application of in-class knowledge more than others. Social work majors, for example, are required to take two classes placing them with a social service agency in Baltimore before they can graduate.
For most students, however, the knowledge they gain in school remains abstract, research-based and completely removed from the hands-on world they enter upon graduation. The disconnect between UMBC classrooms and the outside world breeds ignorance and a lack of empathy for those who live and work outside of the UMBC community.
Perhaps more classes should follow the Department of Social Work’s example, and help students find real uses for their knowledge by sponsoring field trips or service opportunities into neighboring communities that show relevance to class curriculum.
Rather than teaching students about an environmental phenomenon, let them see it for themselves and catalog these factors in parks and public spaces. Instead of telling students that inequality exists, take them to volunteer for a few hours at a homeless shelter or in the Baltimore public school system, so that they can actually do something about it. Teach students that the information they learn in class is more than just a means of getting a good grade, but a useful way of navigating the world and affecting real change.
Knowledge is not developed or produced in a bubble, and it shouldn’t be learned in a bubble either. If we are to care about what we learn in class, then it needs to have context and a purpose behind it. The concept of field trips might sound like it belongs in elementary school, but if we are to really make anything out of what we learn at UMBC then they might just be essential.