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Community-Engaged Signature Work - Guides

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Community-Engaged Signature Work

Overview   |  Guides  |  Campus Examples  |  Documents to Download


Definition, Guidelines, and Examples


Signature Work, a term coined by the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, represents an opportunity for integrative and applied learning. In Signature Work, students integrate, apply, demonstrate, reflect on, and communicate their cumulative learning in a project or activity lasting at least one semester. Ideally, in such a project students wrestle with complex questions that matter to them and to society. Community Engaged Signature Work involves students in working in a dynamic, dialectical way to design and carry out projects that both address a real-world issue or problem and that meshes with academic study. In Community Engaged Signature Work, students also produce something of value to a designated community partner (such as a nonprofit organization, school, government agency, or constituency).


Expectations for Community Engaged Signature Work


While many students can be involved in a Capstone academic experience, what distinguishes Community Engaged Signature Work will be several key factors:


  • A reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship between the student and designated community partner and/or contact – which involves ongoing dialogue and exchange between the individual, agency, or group and the student (and faculty member)
  • A community identified need or intended benefit for the student’s academic work
  • Academic inquiry (which may take many forms) that intentionally connects with the intended purpose and project 
  • Mentoring and/or advisory relationships for the students (with a faculty member and/or a community representative)


Types and Examples of Community Engaged Signature Work


Community Engaged Signature Work can draw on broader definitions of civic and community engagement and public scholarship that also mesh well with the public mission of higher education and expanded notions of scholarship (Boyer, 1990) including from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and Association of American Colleges and Universities (Vortruba et al., 2002; The National Task Force, 2012), Community Engaged Signature Work can take many forms including:


  • Capstone level program, organizational and/or curriculum development
  • Applied research designed to better understand a problem and/or identify and test solutions
  • Capacity building and technical assistance involving the application of student and faculty work to address a problem or understand a phenomenon (like the achievement gap)
  • Demonstration or service learning projects that test new models and approaches and/or apply best practice” to issues within community settings
  • Policy analysis that is directed at framing new policy approaches or assessing the impact of current policy initiatives
  • Impact assessment designed to measure the effects of community programs and services
  • Educational or learning programs designed to expand access to educational opportunities, as well as educate communities regarding the challenges they confront
  • Involvement of students, faculty and administrators in community-originated initiatives



What Capstone Level Work Looks Like for Student Learning

One way to help conceptualize and then design educational pedagogies and programs that foster student readiness to do Community Engaged Signature Work is through outcome-oriented curriculum design. Drawing from the AAC&U Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric, a student at the Capstone (level 4) in civic engagement would demonstrate the following:


  • Diversity of Communities and Cultures:  Consistently identifies personal transformation in attitudes and beliefs about diverse communities. Uses curiosity about communities to often explore and challenge multiple viewpoints 
  • Knowledge: Demonstrates a fully developed understanding of 1) how the dominant perspective shapes social authority and patterns of power, 2) of the central principles of American democratic government and its historical development, and 3) of American democracy in a comparative perspective relative to the expressions of ideals and practices in other countries. 
  • Personal Values and Commitment to Engagement: Articulates a personal philosophy and reflects upon their personal commitment to community or pubic domain. 
  • Civic Communication: Demonstrates capacity to exchange ideas about civic engagement in ways that draws on others’ viewpoints. Demonstrates skills in listening, and articulating one’s own ideas (e.g., through deliberation, negotiation, conflict resolution, building agreement) in inclusive ways. 
  • Public Action: Demonstrates clear commitment to participate and lead in community contexts as a way to constructively influence the public good. Clearly demonstrates capacity to carry out and reflect on, public efforts that involve service, public education, and/or policy formulation as a means to influence the public good. 
  • Negotiating Civic Contexts and Structures: Successfully negotiates (or manages) complex civic contexts (e.g., organizations, movements, collective action) to achieve a civic aim. 


A Developmental Approach to Student Learning and Partnerships 


To successfully engage in Community Engaged Signature Work, it is necessary that students engaged in a developmental or “scaffolded” set of experiences. Regardless of whether the student is a Bonner Scholar or Leader, a student would necessarily have a number of precursor experiences. 


While these stages do not need to occur in a conventional four-year model, it may be helpful to think about a design that builds in these components. The developmental stages may be sequenced as follows (with implementation strategies noted for each):


  • First year/stage:  Significant immersion and experience in a given community project, such that the student develops a strong sense of place, relationship, and belonging in a community context and with a specific partner (or constituency).


This might happen through:

      • First Year Experience
      • Learning Community
      • Structured first year of Bonner Program


  • Second year/stage:  Significant integrated learning and reflection about an area of particular interest (such as an issue like affordable housing, environmental sustainability, college access, etc.).


This might happen through:

      • Service-learning coursework (preferably sequenced)
      • Learning Community
      • Mentored research project
      • Structured second year of Bonner Program 


  • Third year/stage:  Significant integrated experience of study and action that contributes to student’s growing competencies and readiness for taking on civically focused capstone work.


This might happen through: 

      • Course-based or full-time (summer) internship
      • Intentional immersion into diversity and global learning experience (study abroad)
      • Community-based research project
      • Apprenticeship with a similar or related agency (i.e., working or studying with another relevant nonprofit)
      • Leadership role at a site
      • Structured second year of Bonner Program


  • Capstone - Fourth year/stage:  A significant civically focused capstone that is both: (1) integrative (across undergraduate experiences in service and coursework); (2) culminating and involving significant reflection. While some Bonners may have non-credit bearing Capstones, ideally this is also tied to both academic credit.



Questions for Planning a Community-Engaged Signature Work Expectation

The following questions may be helpful in strategic planning for developing your community engaged Signature Work expectation.  


Project Definition


For both individual students and any organizing unit (i.e. Bonner Program, the center, departments), foundational planning for Community Engaged Signature Work would need to identify potential projects in connection with identified community partners and students. These questions might help with the process:


  • What potential capstone (Engaged Signature Work) projects can be identified and defined in conversation with current community partners or community beneficiaries?


This might include:

      • in the context of a structured Bonner Program or another program (i.e., workshops with partner representatives and staff are held each year in preparation for this)
      • through structured partner conversations or focus groups
      • the partner initiates or makes a request to the student, faculty member, staff, or center
      • in a dialogue between a student working at the site and partner


  • How long will the project take to complete (estimate)?


Think about:

      • projected time at the site
      • how this fits with the academic calendar (semester/year)
      • stages of design, research, and delivery


  • Is the project part of a larger or longer-term enterprise or series of projects? Could it be?


Think about: what prior work, preparation, or knowledge should be shared with the student (i.e., prior reports or projects, a long range plan, etc.)


  • Is this an individual or team project? Who else will be involved in the project design, research, and implementation? 


  • How many students (and other institutional partners) can reasonably be involved in the site and project? 


  • What will, ideally, come from the project? How will it be useful or sustained?


Student Role and Learning 


  • What knowledge, skills, and prior experiences does the student need to complete the project, ideally? If a student is already identified, does s/he demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and experiences?



      • understanding about the mission and inner workings of the organization/site
      • understanding about the issue and/or intervention
      • understanding and familiarity with the population served and/or involved
      • knowledge and experience working in the specific place and/or defined community
      • academic and technical skills


  • Where and how will student(s) be found who can engage in this Capstone project?



      • link to Bonner Program and developmental progression
      • sequences of coursework (in a major, minor, or certificate)
      • pipeline or structured programs
      • through advising and matchmaking
      • competency based programs


  • What will be the support and management structure for the student throughout the project?



      • mentored research or academic work by faculty
      • guidance and feedback by partner
      • role of staff (center)


  • What is the expected product or deliverable for the student’s work for academic credit? How will the student’s work be graded?


  • How will the student’s work be shared and/or disseminated with the partner? What forms might this take?



      • report
      • community forum
      • integration with programming and/or services
      • publication
      • policy recommendations


Structure and Campus Connections


  • What campus structures is the project embedded in or connected with? How is the Capstone (Engaged Signature Work) project part of a larger academic pathway?



      • course
      • independent study
      • major/minor/concentration
      • issue based pathway
      • co-curricular program


  • What is the role and nature of the relationship with the campus center (or department)?


  • How is a designated office (or person) assisting with relationship management, resources, logistics, tracking, knowledge transfer, etc.?