Engaging Adult Learners: Interdisciplinary, Intergenerational Community Based Participatory Research

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2012

Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2011), it is estimated that the number of “non-traditional students” (those students age 25 and older) will increase 21% for those persons ages 25-34 years of age and 16% for those persons age 35 and older by year 2020. While Johnson C. Smith University has long had “an evening program” offering night classes to working adults, an internal SWOT Analysis determined that the University had to provide more class offerings, university services, etc. to better serve its non-traditional students as well as strategically plan for increasing numbers of students age 25 and older. In 2010, the Metropolitan College was established to offer undergraduate degrees in social work, criminology, and business administration to working adults in traditional, online, and hybrid courses. In addition faculty, specifically criminology faculty, deemed it prudent to provide non-traditional students, analogous with their counterparts—traditional students, a pedagogical model which situated an emphasis on and afforded students and opportunity to ascertain an applied experience, as well as provide a more robust research emphasis beyond the walls of the university (i.e., constructivist learning).

According to Roblyer, Edwards, and Havriluk (1997), the constructivist learning environment involves problem-solving activities. These learning environments are rich learning environments that involve cooperative and collaborative group learning and learning through exploration. Cognitive constructivism contends that knowledge is constructed and made meaningful through an individual’s interactions and analyses of the environment; knowledge is constructed in the mind of the individual. According to Piaget (as cited in Jadallah, 2000), faculty should create an applied, hands-on environment for the student to connect new subject matter and content and their prior knowledge (Social constructivism maintains that social interaction with the instructor and other students contribute to the learning process. Constructivism theorizes that for experiential learning to be meaningful, students must actively participate in a process of exploring, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing knowledge into a frame of reference that they then use and build on prior knowledge (Jadallah). One way the criminology faculty at Johnson C. Smith University afford learners these constructive learning environments is through Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR).

Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR ) has a long history in the social sciences. Its origins can be traced to University of Chicago sociologists, including Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, conducted ecological studies of Chicago neighborhoods beginning in the 1920s (e.g., Park, Burgess & McKenzie, 1925). Later, many former social activists from the 1960s, now in academia, sought to use social science knowledge to address problems of poverty and inequality in their communities.

The primary goals of CBPR are to (1) engage in reciprocal research that is mutually beneficial to researchers and communities, (2) develop culturally competent and appropriate methods, (3) clarify expectations and roles of community members and researchers and (4) honor research product as much as process (Delemos, 2006). CBPR also affords opportunity to work with underserved, marginalized communities (Shiu-Thorton, as cited in Delemos). Marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by disproportionate policy planning, when there are crisis incidents, and in social justice issues.

The following article will describe an Interdisciplinary, Intergenerational Community Based Participatory Research project in the Spring 2012 semester at Johnson C. Smith University. Community Based Participatory Research within Johnson C. Smith University’s Criminology Program.

As noted above, in 2010, the Metropolitan College was to offer undergraduate degrees in social work, criminology, and business administration to working adults in traditional, online, and hybrid courses. Adult learners take complete their degree requirement in an accelerated format, taking their classes in the evenings, online, or in a hybrid format. Specifically, the Metropolitan College was designed and funded by the Duke Endowment to accommodate the schedules and lifestyles of working adults. Program requirements are seamless for the traditional and non-traditional students, with the exception of expected completion time.

The Criminology Program, is housed within Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Our learners must complete 122 credit hours (consisting of general education, criminology, and elective coursework). Within the required criminology courses, our learners must complete nine hours of research and statistics courses in that they take two Research Methods courses and a statistics course (in addition to the required two semesters of math as part of the general education requirement). For nearly 30 years, rather than simply teaching the students about survey development and data collection and analysis, criminology faculty created learning opportunities where our students were hands on in developing and validating the survey instruments, disseminating the surveys in the communities, and data analysis. Initially, CBPR projects had our students engaged in research projects for the local police and courts, the local housing authority, The United Way, various community development corporations (CDCs), and 15+ neighborhood associations. Faculty required the students to complete the surveys as class projects (and received a grade for their participation for the same, which afforded students experience in conducting survey research (Carter, Fox, Priest, & McBridge, 2002). The CBPR projects in the past have had a positive impact in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community and have helped shape policy and practice, often involving the marginalized communities within the area. Positive outcomes include the creation of a neighborhood directory (and documentation that there was now a significant Hispanic population in one). In another survey in another community, results revealed another neighborhood indicated a great deal of concern about drug and alcohol abuse in the neighborhood, which resulted in the neighborhood association made arrangements with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to hold regular meetings in a neighborhood church. Data from various surveys has been used to bring financial and community resources into the neighborhood, including securing grant monies for a “safe house’ for residents in the community, which included office space for community policing officers before the policy substation was opened in 2010. Coincidentally, that new police patrol substation was established within one of the communities due in part to our survey results.

Special Topics in Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice began at the University of California at Berkley during the early 1900’s, where August Vollmer, who was then, police chief of the Berkley Police Department, began asking scientists at the university to examine evidence in cases and using university faculty as part of the training program for the police department. Criminology is a hybrid discipline of the social sciences, consisting of sociology, psychology, political science, and history (Schmalleger, 2003; Southerland, 2002) and was to provide a more scientific understanding of crime, criminals, the social justice and policy. Criminologists provided currency to the discipline via employing both scientific methodology and theoretical tenets to better understand the nature of human behavior as it narrates a more coherent understanding of crime and criminals. Criminology (or one of its related disciplines, such as criminal justice) can be found at most colleges and universities. There are approximately 25 doctoral degree granting criminal justice programs, over 100 masters programs, and several hundred bachelors programs in the United States (Clear, as cited in Deflem, 2002; Southerland, 2002). One of the current trends in the discipline, is the emergence of courses, concentrations, and/or degree programs in emergency management, forensics, public safety, and homeland security (Davis Bivens & Bledsoe-Gardner, 2011). The Johnson C. Smith University criminology program strives to insure that our curriculum is responsive to the needs of the workforce and that our students are competitive candidates in the criminal justice workforce and in graduate school. In response, the criminology program offers Special Topics in Criminal Justice courses, which focus on current issues and trends in the discipline, such as the emergence of emergency management and homeland security.

In Spring 2012, the program offered a Special Topics in Criminal Justice Course – Introduction to Emergency Management. It was an accelerated night class, consisting of our “traditional undergraduate” majors. One of the major assignments for the course, was the students’ involvement in community based participatory research. Students, working with the course faculty, developed a survey to assess several of the local communities’ awareness and knowledge of critical incidents which could impact them and the four phases of emergency management [mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery] (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2011). These communities were specifically chosen due to their proximity to critical incident hazard risks, such as train derailment, flooding, etc.

During several months during the Spring 2012 semester, students from the Introduction to Emergency Management course, along with both traditional students and Metropolitan College students enrolled in another faculty member’s research methods courses (two separate sections), canvassed four communities, surveying a random sampling of residents. It was learned early on, that there were a large number of Spanish speaking residents in the communities. To insure that the Latino population was not excluded from the survey, Spanish faculty teaching Spanish for Social Sciences in the Metropolitan College, had her students translate the survey into Spanish. Students from that Spanish course also went out with the students in the criminology courses, to survey the Spanish speaking residents.

Spanish for Social Services is an elective course that was developed many years ago to help prepare our students to better meet the needs of the rising influx of Hispanics in our country. The goal was to provide students going into Social Work, Criminology and other Social Science Majors with the necessary linguistic and cultural skills to be able to successfully communicate with Spanish speaking clients that they may encounter in their future workplace. The Prerequisite is SPA 232- Intermediate Spanish II or Permission of the Instructor. It focuses on an extensive study of vocabulary and terminology required of Social Service professionals and other community workers who may come into contact with a large amount of Spanish speakers on the job. The class consists of many role-playing activities as well as research elements to better acquaint students with the Hispanic population and its’ culture. Key features of the curriculum also include Service Learning and the actual use of Spanish in the field with clients and other professionals. As stated previously, the course has been on the books for many years but was not being taught until recently when the Metropolitan College began its’ Social Work and Criminology Programs.

Faculty Observations

According to Knowles (as cited in Merriam & Brockett, 1997), adult learners need to know why they must learn something before they begin that process. These adult learners, also have a readiness to apply skills and learn in a real life situation. By allowing the Metropolitan College students to translate the survey into Spanish and then actually go to interview the Spanish speaking residents, it provided them with that much needed hands-on, real life application of what they had been learning in Spanish class. One of the best practices for any foreign language professional is to try and include as much authentic real-life situations into their class as possible to make language learning more meaningful. This is especially important with adult students who may have more constraints on their time as well as more real world experience. When this opportunity was presented for the class to partner with the Criminology Department to utilize their language skills to assist real people living in neighboring communities the students jumped at the chance to participate. It was decided that in addition to receiving community service hours for their time that this activity would be counted as one of their project grades in their overall average. The survey was distributed to the class and we read over it together highlighting key vocabulary words. Subsequently, students honed their Spanish-speaking skills by defining key words and phrases in Spanish. The survey was then divided up into sections with each student being assigned a specific part to translate for homework. The students eagerly accepted this challenge and were all ready with their assignments the following class period. Revisions were made and a student volunteer typed up the final version of the Spanish survey. From the beginning, students were excited about the project and especially enjoyed conducting the actual surveying and interacting with the people in the neighborhood. Although this was their first time conducting surveys, the students communicated effectively with the community and exhibited great poise and confidence in their interactions. Students were shocked at the amount of Hispanics living in the community and were also surprised to learn about race relations between minority groups in the neighborhood. Overall, it was a positive learning experience for the class and it left the students eager to embark upon their next community project. Moreover, the project afforded students to engage a marginalized community through community-based participatory research.

CBPR also affords our learners the opportunity to develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Not only in terms of Spanish speaking skills, but also survey design, data collection, and surveying experiences. Some of our recent graduates have shared that they were able to successfully gain employment because of their research skills. We often encourage our students to share their CBPR experience because for them to have the courage and ability, to canvass a neighborhood (often times, those which are considered fragile due to crime and other quality of life issues), knock on doors, and interview strangers, that tells prospective employers that they are able to communicate effectively with consumers, the public, etc.

CBPR was an excellent opportunity for faculty collaboration via offering an interdisciplinary lens (collaborative efforts with both Spanish and Criminology faculty) to: 1) increase the projective of two academic departments; 2) effectively communicate with a marginalized community who deserve a voice; and 3) provide better a working knowledge for students in each discipline which subsequently leads to more enriching classroom experience for both faculty and students. Finally, this project allowed for the University to expand past our gates, be a “good neighbor,” and make a positive impact on the community. Ideally, the respondents surveyed may have a greater awareness of critical incidents and disasters and/or begin to think about mitigating and recovering from the same (note that all respondents were given an emergency checklist from the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management to plan for a disaster as a gratuity for participating in our survey).


Through experiential learning opportunities, specifically community-based participatory research (CBPR), students and faculty have created an educational environment without walls. For example, experiential learning opportunities for our students (specifically our adult students), as preliminary anecdotal data indicates, has increased students’ paradigm and excitement for learning. In essence, qualitative data has indicated that students indicate that not only do they have a lot to gain from experiential learning opportunities/CBPR. Additionally, CBPR has extended the domain of the academic community to the community at large to the extent of providing marginalized community members and students a voice that has and continues to provide a silhouette for community activism and policy development on a local and state level in the substantive areas of social justice, community engagement and public affairs issues.


Carter, D.B., Fox, L., Priest, T. & McBride, F. (2002). Student involvement in community- based research. Metropolitan Universities 13, 56-63.

Davis-Bivens, N. & Bledsoe-Gardner, A. (2011). “The future of the criminal justice discipline in sustainable justice: Where do we go from here?” Featured Roundtable at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Annual Meeting Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. New York, New York. March 13 – 17, 2012.

Delemos, J.L. (2006). Community-based participatory research: Changing scientific practice from research on communities to research with and for communities. Local Environment,11(3), 329-228. DOI: 10.1080/13549830600558838

Haddow, G.D., Bullock, J.A. & Coppola, D. P. (2011). Introduction to Emergency Management. (4th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterwoth-Heinemen

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National Center for Educational Statistics (2011). Projections of education statistics to 2020. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.

Park, R., Burgess, E. W. & MacKenzie, R. D. Eds.(1925). The City. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Roblyer, M. D., Edwards, J., & Havriluk, M. A. (1997). Integrating educational technology in teaching. Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schmalleger, F. (2003). Criminal justice: A brief introduction( 5th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Publishers.

Southerland, M.D. (2002). Criminal justice curricula in the United States: A decade of change. Justice Quarterly, 19, 589-601.

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Spring 2013: New Faces, New Expectations