Advocating Personal and Political Change in a Collaborative Project Course

September 21, 2023

Duke students pose outside the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh.
Students spilled out of the van parked across from the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh on an unusually warm April morning. Armed with talking points and lawmakers’ office numbers, they passed through security then fanned through the halls to representatives’ and senators’ offices. Students hand-delivered policy papers to legislative committee members, skillfully answering difficult questions, such as:

  • Why should undocumented immigrants in N.C. have access to restricted driver’s licenses?
  • If N.C. has not executed anyone since 2006, why should lawmakers repeal the death penalty?
  • Will requiring N.C. judges and jurors to watch implicit bias videos reduce discrimination?
  • Do social media companies in N.C. have a legal right to censor hateful speech on their platforms?

Four Duke students talk inside the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh.Students spent the Spring 2023 semester preparing for this day. In their project-based sociology class, Just Laws: Inequalities in the U.S. Legal System, students worked in teams based on their common interest in immigration, criminal, healthcare, civil rights, entertainment, business or family law.

Teams selected bills currently under consideration in the N.C. Legislature that they wanted to advocate for or against. After evaluating empirical findings, they synthesized scholarly research into policy papers written for lawmakers. They designed websites to provide additional multimedia information to support their recommendations.

In preparation to teach this new course, Jenifer Hamil-Luker, associate professor of the practice of sociology, participated in the Collaborative Project Courses Faculty Fellows program offered by Bass Connections and Duke Learning Innovation. Along with 13 other faculty from across the university, she learned new approaches to integrating collaborative, project-based learning into her courses.

Sociology Ph.D. student Ruth Wygle helped with course design. “We thought critically about how to create a classroom environment that was welcoming to diverse perspectives,” Wygle said.

Although project-based learning is recognized as a “high-impact educational practice,” Hamil-Luker had some doubts. She would need to reduce delivery of substantive content to create time for students to problem-solve using that content. Half of the classes would be workshops for skill-building and collaboration. Would the tradeoff be worth it?

Self- and peer-evaluations collected throughout the semester answered that question with a resounding “Yes!”

Catherine Belyakov, a junior public policy major, shared that students in traditional reading, lecture and exam courses usually learn material only for exams and quickly forget information when the course is complete.

“Team-based semester-long projects allow for applied learning that enhances classroom material,” she said, “and allows for learning that sticks.” Belyakov’s team produced a website and policy paper summarizing research to recommend raising the minimum age of criminal prosecution from 10 to 12 years old.

Sophomore Eugene Cho reflected, “While a standard lecture class may be more effective at disseminating large amounts of information, that is not reflective of how we will learn in the real world; our future jobs and experiences will not involve just the process of absorbing and regurgitating material.” Cho appreciated that the collaborative project-based course deepened her knowledge of healthcare policies while enhancing her interpersonal and problem-solving skills.

Similarly, Shaun Wu, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, wrote that “the biggest benefit for me working in teams on a semester-long project is that it builds soft skills, like conflict resolution and relationship building, which are critical for effective teamwork in the future workforce.” Wu’s team created a policy paper and website explaining why lawmakers should legalize medical-aid-in-dying.

Duke students gather for a group photo of the whole class.

In addition to gaining knowledge about the U.S. legal system, other students reported the value of practicing how to:

  • Manage project goals and deadlines
  • Prevent and resolve conflict between team members
  • Examine arguments and evidence from different perspectives
  • Present visually engaging scientific findings to nonexperts
  • Converse with powerful people who disagree with them

Sophomore Davis Beischer highlighted the benefits of a semester-long exploration into a single topic. His team examined the environmental and human health effects of PFAS contamination. Their policy paper and website urged N.C. lawmakers to pass a bill to hold businesses financially accountable when they pollute. Just Laws “was much more memorable than any other course I have taken at Duke,” Beischer stated, “because it left me with a comprehensive understanding of my topic and a desire to dig deeper.”

After distributing their policy papers to legislators, students discussed their experiences on the drive back to Duke. They shared that after some initial nervous interactions in the General Assembly building, their confidence grew. The class drew on weeks of research and communication workshops to respectfully discuss bills affecting the lives of North Carolinians. This collaborative project course set the stage for personal growth and political change.

Hamil-Luker is currently redesigning another course she regularly teaches to feature applied learning through collaborative projects. She explained, “Connecting academic research with real-life problems energizes students (and me!) to work hard because it matters for their communities, not just their grades.”

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