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Photo of Sara Ducey by Adrilenzo Cassoma

Like most students at Montgomery College, Leah Windley is busy. The performance and technical theater major takes classes full time, works part-time in a local restaurant, performs in college productions or helps out backstage, and has a long commute on top of it. She is a disciplined time manager, turning in her work on time, but even so, she sometimes wishes she could do more.

Professor Sara Ducey wants to help students like Leah do exactly that: add a little more, go a little deeper, and make meaningful and intentional connections between their personal and academic lives. That’s the idea behind an initiative to integrate learning across many platforms.

“We want to help students be better at who they are,” Ducey says. Ducey is the collegewide chair of integrative studies and director of the Paul Peck Humanities Institute.

The idea behind integrative studies is to help students make intentional connections between academic learning and the wider world in which they live. Classroom activities and even college events can give students structured opportunities for relating one subject matter to another, transferring skills across disciplines, and reflecting on how they are changed by participation in the experience.

“Students who can make these connections and think across disciplines are better at problem solving,” says Professor Ducey. And problem-solvers are attractive to employers.

Here’s an example. Ducey, who teaches classes in nutrition, might work with Student Life staff to provide a service learning experience that students could not get in a traditional classroom–volunteering at a local food bank, for example, sorting cans.

First, students get the experience of volunteering to help others. Then back in the classroom, nutrition students might design a meal based on just four cans of food and reflect (another important part of integrative learning) on the nutritional content of the donated food.

Professor Ducey’s wide variety of assignments include intentional reflective writing (click to enlarge)

“Often canned foods are high in sodium; the vegetables are not fresh; they are in plastic-lined cans that are toxic,” Ducey says. “There are so many things to learn. They are still giving food to feed people immediately but they begin to understand that these short-term efforts don’t solve a long-term problem, and that you might actually make people sick.”

Ducey says students taking nutrition classes also complete a survey about food security; when they see the data, they realize hunger is not a problem in a faraway place but in their own classrooms, making another connection between what they are learning and problems their neighbors are facing.

These experiences help students who often have packed schedules avoid what Ducey calls “driving by.” The “drive-bys” do all of their assignments but have neither the time nor skills to reflect on their work or develop more sophisticated thinking and problem-solving skills.

Ultimately, Ducey says, we want to help our students be “better, stronger, faster and—more employable.”

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