This is a guiding principle at Indiana University Northwest. Front and center in the university’s mission statement, it is woven throughout most staff, student, and faculty activities. But what does community engagement really mean?
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching defines community engagement as the “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial creation and exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”
IU Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE) serves as the front door for IU Northwest’s community engagement and is actively involved in tracking, recording, and nurturing a growing base of partnerships for the mutual benefit of the campus and community.
Still, even with a definition, and a Center dedicated to it, it can be difficult to understand how this notion comes to life on and off campus. How it impacts people, programs and possibilities. How it translates into tangible relationships and results.
To better illustrate the university’s commitment to community engagement, Ellen Szarleta, professor and CURE director, is excited to announce Collaboratory, a new cloud-based software tool that curates community-based activities.
“The more the campus community uses Collaboratory to document their activities, the more powerful it becomes,” Szarleta said. “At first I saw this strictly as a database to document our activities, but I quickly realized it also serves to build the culture of community engagement. It is enabling me to have conversations that I couldn’t have before.”
IU Northwest is only the fourth institution in the country to adopt Collaboratory. It was born at the University of North Carolina as a way to internally track activities. Then, faculty at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) began looking at developing the software, which led to IU’s support for all campuses to onboard the technology. At an event to celebrate IU’s bicentennial year in April, CURE unveiled Collaboratory as an important new development to take IU into its next 200 years.
A public resource
Despite its initial goal of tracking and monitoring community engagement, Szarleta has found its greatest power is its public face.
“Collaboratory is a one-stop shop for people to learn how IU Northwest is partnering with the community to improve the quality of life in the region,” she said. “It puts people and organizations with similar goals in the same environment together so they can discover each other, learn about their common goals, and find ways to mutually benefit each other.”
As more faculty and staff members, and more universities, join Collaboratory, the reach broadens.
Want to know what the Community Garden sign on 35th and Washington is really all about? Did you know that each October, nursing students give free health screenings on the Gleason walking path? What does the Small Business Academy do to help local entrepreneurs? These are a few examples of what individuals can learn while searching Collaboratory.
Monica Solinas-Saunders, associate professor of public and environmental affairs, outlined the many benefits of Collaboratory from the faculty, student, and community perspectives.
“Collaboratory enables the faculty to better structure activities. By linking the various aspects of teaching, research, service and engagement, my colleagues and I have a clearer idea of the impact our work has on the university and community,” she said. This tool also increases the potential for collaboration among partners across the country. Expanding our network is essential for succeeding in our respective fields of study, as collaboration is a key component of academic success, community development and social impact.”
Perhaps most exciting, Solinas-Saunders said, is how Collaboratory allows students to find ideas, projects and professors who share their passions and are excited to work with them.
“Students have a genuine interest in innovation and they have energy and passion,” she said. “Collaboratory opens the door and invites them to partner with faculty in transformative ways.”
Szarleta said this tool is a kind of information portal that helps connect individuals across a variety of roles and disciplines to achieve their mutual goals.
“If you want to establish a relationship with the university and any of its partnerships, start here,” she said. “This tool will help organizations find opportunities that they perhaps hadn’t thought of before. Use it to assist your organization in growing and build partnerships with the university and others in the community.”