Middle Georgia State Students Put Knowledge to Work

Sheron Smith

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

Packed bookcases and clusters of desks create several compact learning areas in a large, colorful classroom at the Georgia Academy for the Blind.

In one of these cozy spaces, 10-year-old DaQuan Brown demonstrates how he does math assignments using something called a VisioBook. A full-color reading device for visually impaired users, VisioBook is just one example of the assistive technology found throughout the academy, located in Macon.   

As he closely watches the boy’s demo, Middle Georgia State University IT major Cody Meek is again reminded of how his internship at the academy is changing his life.

"My career goal has always been to find a way to apply my technical skills while working with people," said Meek, a 25-year-old Warner Robins resident graduating in spring 2016.

"This internship has certainly opened doors to career possibilities I would not have dreamed of before. There is a lot of opportunity to use IT skills to impact lives in positive ways."

Helping Middle Georgia State students decide what they want to do with their education is one of the primary goals of Knowledge@Work, the University's new initiative in experiential learning.

Defined as "formal, guided and authentic experiences outside the classroom," Knowledge@Work wraps administrative structure around the many applied learning activities that are already taking place while paving the way to add more.

For the first time, Middle Georgia State has a single office dedicated to experiential learning and targeted funding that will eventually include stipends for students who are, among other things, engaged in research or traveling to academic conferences to present their work. 

Knowledge@Work also proposes ways for students to earn official acknowledgement for successfully applying their classroom knowledge, much like gaining formal recognition at honors convocation and graduation for stellar grade point averages.

"We're taking the academic experience to the next level," said Chris Tsavatewa, director of Middle Georgia State's new Office of Experiential Learning. "This is a coordinated effort to enhance the experiences of students and give them a competitive edge once they graduate."

Quality Enhancement Plan

Knowledge@Work is what Middle Georgia State calls its comprehensive Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which is required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges as part of the reaccreditation process. The QEP aligns with the University's overall mission and reinforces the student-centered focus of Middle Georgia State's strategic plan.

Under the Knowledge@Work umbrella, Middle Georgia State students will get to apply their learning in a multitude of ways that reflect regional needs and the disciplines the University teaches.  

"They’ll apply their learning through internships, undergraduate research and service learning, all of which are identified by scholars of higher education as 'high-impact practices’ contributing to student achievement," Tsavatewa said. "Experiential learning will provide an enhanced experience that enables Middle Georgia State students to appreciate the relationship between classroom learning and professional success."

A faculty review board is developing criteria for what activities will formally qualify as Knowledge@Work, along with ways to ensure consistent quality and oversight of those experiences.

"We're not going to pay lip service and just count any kind of experience," Tsavatewa said.  "By making Knowledge@Work a comprehensive initiative that ties in with many other departments, including Career Services, Student Life and the Middle Georgia State University Foundation, it becomes an institutional commitment."

Variety of Experiences

Whatever experiences ultimately qualify as Knowledge@Work, many Middle Georgia State students are already learning by doing.

Meek's work this fall for the Academy for the Blind - an internship he credits IT faculty member Dr. Terry Smith for helping him get – includes evaluating how assistive technology meets the needs of users. He takes careful notes while talking with academy students and watching how they use different devices.

"One of the things I'm learning is how accessibility features on smart devices work in conjunction with modern assistive technology," Meek said. "I'll be performing some qualitative analysis soon."

In Warner Robins, Anjolie Nicolas is interning with Houston County Family Connection, commonly known as Kids Journey, although the organization works with adults, too.

Family Connection, which has an office at Warner Robins City Hall, brings other agencies and non-profits together to work on community issues, such as reducing juvenile crime and promoting a farmer's market where low-income parents can buy healthy foods.

Nicolas, a 22-year-old senior from Warner Robins majoring in Public Service, dove right into the non-profit world as she learned to write grants, speak to outside groups and create a social media presence for Family Connection.

"It's more hands-on than classroom work," said Nicolas, who is interested in a career working for non-profits that focus on children. "I'm learning how challenging it is to keep these programs running and the effort it takes to make things better."

Xaviea Brown, a 21-year-old junior majoring in New Media and Communications, and Colin Penndorf, a 22-year-old senior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies, are among the first students involved in Middle Georgia State's new partnership with the Tubman Museum.

As projects for the filmmaking class they are taking this fall, both are working on short documentaries focusing on individuals who are part of local civil rights history. The Tubman will screen and archive their films, along with those by other Middle Georgia State students.  

Brown's documentary subject is Thelma Dillard, a retired educator now serving on the Bibb County school board who was part of the civil rights movement. Interviewing Dillard helped Brown, a Rhode Island native, learn more about Middle Georgia history. Cutting down an hour of footage to five minutes is helping her hone her film-editing skills.

"It’s challenging because Ms. Dillard shared so much valuable information," Brown said.

Penndorf, who lives in Macon, is documenting the work of Jeff Bruce, the Tubman's curator and exhibit designer.

“My documentary examines how his history as a black man in the Southern U.S. led to his involvement in civil rights," Penndorf said. "The film is intended to show how, through his curatorial efforts, the museum influences the discussion of history."

On Middle Georgia State's Cochran Campus, the scenic pond near Georgia Hall is central to the research of three Biology majors - Josiah Davis, 21, Michaela Etter, 26, and Laryn Lane, 22. They recently gathered water samples there to test for the presence of magnetotactic bacteria (MTB). 

Under the supervision of Dr. Sharon Mozley-Standridge, associate professor of Biology, the three students and others have traveled around the state collecting samples from fresh water sources and salt marshes to analyze.

According to a project proposal Davis wrote, research on MTB and their magnetosomes can be applied to many fields like material science, biology, pharmacy, electronics, optics, magnetism and electrochemistry.

"This is largely a self-directed project, so we really are learning by doing," said Davis, a senior from Brunswick whose career goal is to become a regenerative scientist. "If we have questions, that's when we go back to the professor."

During the same semester that Davis and his fellow Biology majors were scooping water samples from ponds and salt marshes, Rebecca Kuzminski was crunching numbers, assembling tax returns, handling some payroll duties and creating invoices at the accounting firm of M L Carroll & Associates in Macon.

A senior working on her bachelor’s degree in Business & IT with a major in Accounting, the 23-year-old Kuzminski said her day-to-day interactions at the firm are valuable experiences not duplicable in classrooms.

“I get to see how the process works in different situations, like dealing with customers who have issues,” said Kuzminski, who is originally from Kennesaw. (Interesting aside: Her identical twin sister is also an Accounting major but she attends Kennesaw State University.) “It’s great to get this kind of experience.”

Kuzminski wants to work in other accounting environments, such as auditing and forensics, before settling on a specific career path.

“One of the things that is so great about experiential learning is that it helps students figure out if what they’ve chosen as a field is what they really want to do,” Tsavatewa said. “If they decide they do want to go in that direction, they’re better prepared because they have real experience.”

Formal Recognition

As a key part of Knowledge@Work, Middle Georgia State formally will recognize students who successfully complete courses that include specific types of internships, undergraduate research and service learning. They will have opportunities to advance through bronze, silver and gold levels of experiential learning - levels that will merit official acknowledgement on diplomas and transcripts and earn students the honor of wearing special cords or sashes at graduation.

Students will also be able to demonstrate and discuss their work at an annual undergraduate showcase, which will take place over several days and across multiple campuses to highlight the scope of Middle Georgia State experiential learning activities.

"Knowledge@Work is a roadmap to help us make sure everybody is on the same page, that one student's experience is just as robust as the next student's experience," Tsavatewa said. "It's going to take time to build the inventory of classes and qualifying experiences, but we're excited about it. Among the cumulative effects we're going for is increased retention and graduation rates. We plan to generate graduates with distinct, competitive advantages based on real-world experiences they can talk about with potential employers. 

Ryan Reid, a 29-year-old IT major from Atlanta, is counting on that. He learned to install servers this fall as part of his Networking Fundamentals class and is grateful for the practical experience.

“The first question employers ask at interviews is, ‘Have you done this before?’” Reid said. “You don’t want your answer to be no.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Middle Georgia State Today magazine.