Through the Conservation Tales Immersive Learning project, Ball State students take on a variety of roles—including illustrator, character designer, graphic designer, photographer, media and video specialist, science education and reading specialists and more. The sloth team members work on illustrations and spend time in person with the animal for their eventual book, one of 19 produced through the project.
After more than two decades of work by faculty and students, Immersive Learning projects at Ball State continue to provide community partners with ongoing value.
For more than two decades, one phrase has especially defined transformational experiences for Ball State undergraduate students while providing unparalleled value and support to community partners: Immersive Learning.
The University’s distinctive Immersive Learning approach began at The Virginia B. Ball Center in the early 2000s. It was established—and remains so to this day—as a high-impact practice that involves collaborative, student-driven teams. Students, led by faculty members, work to earn course credit while teaming with community partners to address their challenges by creating a product that has lasting impact.
“Students—this generation in particular—want to make a difference. When they participate in Immersive Learning classes, they get to make an impact while they are still in college,” said Dr. Jackie Grutsch McKinney, director of Immersive Learning and High Impact Practices and professor of English. “Many of their classes ask them to imagine how they might apply their learning, but Immersive Learning demands that they do it and do it pretty quickly.”
Since the Immersive Learning approach was established, Ball State students and faculty have carried out nearly 3,500 Immersive Learning projects, generating more than 48,000 student experiences. This Spring, more than 80 Immersive Learning courses are available to students.
As Ball State prioritizes supporting neighbors and communities, roughly 58 percent of all projects have been carried out with community partners in East Central Indiana. Teachers College and the College of Health have executed more than 90 percent of their Immersive Learning projects in East Central Indiana.
“It is an understatement to say the impact of two decades of Immersive Learning projects is profound,” Dr. Grutsch McKinney said. “I’d wager that almost every person in Muncie has been impacted directly or indirectly by Immersive Learning in some fashion. Maybe they’ve participated in a community health program, visited a museum exhibit, viewed a documentary, engaged with social media, or have seen homes in their neighborhood rehabilitated by Immersive Learning classes. Maybe their kids have learned something from Immersive Learning students that aren’t always taught in schools, such as construction, computer science, dance, horseback riding, debate, or philosophy.
“Of course, we have heard of the butterfly effect—one small action somewhere ripples out, resulting in big changes,” she continued. “Well, with nearly 50,000 Ball State students participating in Immersive Learning over the years, the analogy no longer holds. Immersive Learning collectively is a force enacting change in massive waves.”
To follow are five examples of Immersive Learning projects at Ball State. Collectively, they epitomize the nature of the work by students and faculty. That work is ongoing, diverse, and meaningful in many ways.
Interdisciplinary Conservation Promotion
First offered as a course in Spring 2018, “Conservation Tales” has garnered more than $76,000 in grants and led to educational experiences for students in Florida and various zoos throughout the Midwest.
Conservation Tales brings together faculty from the Department of Biology and the School of Art—Dr. Tom McConnell, professor of Science Education, and Barbara Giorgio-Booher, ’81, teaching professor in the School of Art. The two bring together students from different majors and disciplines to produce a series of children’s books about wildlife conservation—work that has yielded 19 books created by 61 students through the years.
“The books started because I had noticed that there are a lot of books for children about animals, but none talking about what they could do to help support conservation efforts,” Dr. McConnell said.
The books focus on three messages: everyone can help protect wildlife; anyone can be a scientist; and examples of the processes one needs to learn to be a scientist.
The work began as an independent study in the School of Art with Ms. Giorgio-Booher in collaboration with Dr. McConnell but evolved into an Immersive Learning project for a 300-level Art class. That year’s book was about Gulf Coast wildlife, including manatees, sea turtles, and seahorses.
Over the years, the project has included a variety of students. In the Spring 2022 group, for example, there are students from the College of Fine Arts (Animation, Drawing, Photography, Studio Art, Visual Communication), College of Science and Humanities (Anthropology, Biology, Life Science Education, Spanish), R. Wayne Estopinal College of Architecture and Planning (Landscape Architecture), and College of Communication, Information, and Media (Journalism).
“This Immersive Learning project has helped inspire students in the School of Art with career choices and to find opportunities in their major areas of interest,” Ms. Giorgio-Booher said.
Books produced by the project are available for purchase at conservationtales.com and Amazon.com. With more than 2,400 copies sold to date, one of the top audiences has been teachers.
“Teachers from all different grades have purchased the books and now use them in their classrooms. The books are ideal for introducing science ‘phenomena’ to align with Indiana’s new science standards,” Dr. McConnell said.
Computer Science Awareness
Photo Top/Left: Jordan Reidy, ’19, works with Northside Middle School students in 2017 during an in-school activity led by CS4MS+ (Photo by Dave Largent). Photo Bottom/Right: Burris students work with a Sphero Robot Ball in 2021 during an in-school activity.
In the Fall of 2017, Dave Largent, MS ’10, associate lecturer of Computer Science, began an Immersive Learning project aimed at infusing a better understanding and acceptance of computer science into middle schools in Muncie. Since then, the project has grown and evolved to “Computer Science for Muncie (and Surrounding) Schools (CS4MS+),” as it has expanded beyond middle schools and Muncie.
This Spring represents the ninth semester for the project, which has included 80 students over the years, including 10 who participated a second time.
The overriding goal of CS4MS+ is to increase student exposure to computer science in elementary and secondary schools locally. In Mr. Largent’s view, students of younger ages have “little idea what it means to be a computer scientist.” Changing standards in Indiana are beginning to improve that landscape, but local teachers, Mr. Largent says, had little experience in presenting computer science topics.
The Immersive Learning project has worked to combat that issue in a variety of ways: developing a computer science workshop for teachers; planning and implementing a field trip to Ball State for local students; developing curated lessons that can be incorporated into curriculum; developing documents to explain Indiana state academic standards for grades six through eight, including activities, worksheets, and other resources; developing a website to provide resources widely; and more.
“By providing well-developed computer science resources to our partners, they are better prepared to deliver computer science learning opportunities to the youth of our community,” Mr. Largent said. “We hope to specifically assist with encouraging underrepresented groups, such as racial/ethnic minorities and female students, to engage in computer science curriculum. In doing this, we aspire to promote computer science as a lifelong learning process, thus increasing the diversity within the field.”
In 2020, CS4MS+ was selected as one of the Immersive Learning Faculty Awards.
Improving Community Wellness
Since 2017, and for 50 weeks of each of those years, Ball State students have introduced and sustained a level of wellness to the Muncie community through an Immersive Learning Project called “Cardinal Wellness.”
Supported by Drs. Shannon Powers, associate teaching professor of Kinesiology, and Jean-Charles LeBeau, assistant professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology and coordinator of Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate program, more than 300 students have had some sort of educational experience through Cardinal Wellness.
The project began to fill a need in Muncie for residents to obtain group exercise instruction for free and with guided fitness assessments. Throughout the year, the project provides more than 600 hours of free exercise programming, 200-plus nutritional food samples, and health monitoring for every participant.
“We are interested in the impact of participation in a course-based service-learning experience that integrated opportunities for interprofessional learning on a variety of civic learning outcomes for a wide variety of health profession majors,” Dr. Powers said. “Our research with Dr. Christina Jones has been published in The Physical Educator journal. In relation to the effectiveness of program involvement on those students participating in course-based service-learning projects that worked in conjunction with the Cardinal Wellness program, a significant increase in positive civic attitudes, volunteerism, and social responsibility scores were observed.”
Through Cardinal Wellness, participants from the community have someone monitoring their blood pressure, body mass index, body adiposity index, hand grip strength, and waist-to-hip ratio. These data points are discussed and distributed to participants every three months.
In the Summer months, the program moves from its usual location on Centennial Avenue in Muncie, with Zumba sessions in a gymnasium, to Tuhey Pool, a public pool in the city, for aqua Zumba.
Community Support Through Collaboration
The College of Communication, Information, and Media (CCIM) launched the University’s first Immersive Learning Collaborative in 2019–a college-wide, multi-year partnership with the 8twelve Coalition, a community partner in Muncie.
The 8twelve Coalition was formed in 2015. It is a group of community leaders and more than 25 nonprofits and organizations focused on revitalizing a specific part of Muncie’s south side by prioritizing the sense of community, social cohesion, collective action, housing, business development and employment, education and family support, beautification, and wellness.
The Immersive Learning Collaborative adapts to 8twelve’s broad priorities to provide support and product in various ways through class projects—including awareness through storytelling in an assortment of formats, a new inclusive media outlet, creating and distributing community newsletters, organizational communication consulting, and more.
“This is powerful and important work—both for our students and the community. The collaborative empowers students to apply classroom learning to make a difference in the lives of our neighbors,” said Kate Elliott, lecturer of Journalism and chair of the CCIM Engagement Taskforce. “Students get off campus and put faces to the issues of our world. Their work connects the community and shares stories we might not hear otherwise. The collaborative challenges me to create classes that are agile and responsive to respond to the needs of our community.”
In addition to course work, CCIM faculty, staff, and students also volunteer for community growth efforts like neighborhood cleanups, book drives, and community meals. In November, more than 50 CCIM faculty, staff, and students participated in Stop, Drop and Read at South View Elementary in Muncie—an event emphasizing and proactively supporting reading efforts by young students.
“This collaboration allows us to work together to create meaningful change and live meaningful lives, not just to complete an assignment or a course,” said CCIM dean Dr. Paaige Turner.
The 8twelve Coalition was the 2022 recipient of Ball State’s Outstanding Local Community Partner Award.
Top/Left: Ball State student Eve Green reads with elementary students as part of her participation in CCIM’s Immersive Learning Collaborative that partners with the 8twelve Coalition in Muncie. Middle: Neighborhood pastor Neil Kring, ’93, talks with students in Kate Elliott’s Advanced Strategic Writing class about the Harm Reduction Street Outreach Team in front of Avondale United Methodist Church in Muncie. Bottom/Right: Lauren Raven, ’22, works at the Boys & Girls Club in Muncie.
Helping Firefighters Understand Work Stressors
In a new Immersive Learning project this Spring, Dr. Katie Lawson, an associate professor of Psychological Science, will endeavor to explore with students the work environment issues within the Noblesville, Ind., Fire Department.
The project is titled “Using Research to Understand Work-Related Stressors and Positive Work-Related Experiences of Noblesville Firefighters.” Home to at least 10 participating firefighters who are also Ball State alumni, the Noblesville Fire Department (NFD) is providing a real-world environment to conduct research and apply critical thinking skills. Students are working to identify root-cause problems and solutions to the low morale and well-being experienced by firefighters since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The data analysis conducted by students will result in recommendations to NFD, which will include those recommendations in its annual report. The recommendations will be used as a starting point for NFD to determine future steps to improve its firefighters’ morale.
“Historically, mental health and well-being among firefighters have been taboo, although this is slowly changing,” Dr. Lawson said. “NFD personnel are experiencing unprecedented burnout, job dissatisfaction, low morale, anxiety and depression, and ultimately high turnover rates.
“Our goal is to give students an opportunity to apply and strengthen their research skills to better understand the work-related stressors and positive work-related experiences for those firefighters.”
Dr. Lawson’s course has 16 students enrolled. NFD battalion chief Adam Biddle, ’97, will be the primary point person for the project.