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Featured Course: Prison, Society and You

Drexel Students in the Community-Based Learning Course Prison, Society and You

Drexel professors are collapsing the gap between the classroom and the world beyond, developing community-based learning (CBL) courses that unite the University’s hands-on mission with its humanitarian commitment. In the College of Arts and Sciences, the effort has been spearheaded by Cyndi Rickards, EdD, associate teaching professor of criminology and justice studies. Rickards taught her first CBL course at Drexel during her first term in 2009, and has been a champion of the methodology at the University ever since.

The unique pedagogies comprising CBL courses are as diverse as the imaginations that create them. “In traditional ‘service-learning,’ all classes take place in the classroom,” says Rickards, “with students working in the community during their personal time. The ‘hybrid’ model allows students to split their course time equally between the classroom and the community.”

One of Rickards’ first CBL courses at Drexel — Prison, Society and You — took a third approach, termed “side-by-side.” In side-by-side courses, traditional students and community participants learn together, each earning course credit for the work. The prison course pairs 15 Drexel students with 15 incarcerated individuals at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in Philadelphia, where the group meets weekly to exchange ideas about the criminal justice system, corrections and imprisonment. The course was modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, founded in 1997 by Temple University Professor Lori Pompa. The term “side-by-side” has since been adopted at Drexel to refer to courses in non-correctional settings.

Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility Exterior. Copyright Drexel University

Beyond the coursework and discussions, Rickards says it is the physical environment — the placement in the “real world” — that makes side-by-side courses powerful. “Just the act of being processed into a correctional facility every week, working alongside incarcerated individuals — that itself provides a powerful learning experience,” she says.

Coming face to face with real people in real situations brings course material to life in a manner that would be impossible to replicate, even for a seasoned instructor, says Rickards. “For me to lecture about the effects of poverty does not compare to sitting down with someone who is about to lose their home.”

Rickards and her colleagues are clearly passionate about the value CBL adds to a college education. “It speaks to a larger sense of social responsibility,” she says, “It speaks to integrated learning, and it speaks to public purpose.”