Students sounding call to action with out-of-class experiences

University of Iowa students command more meaningful educational experience

Brian James (left) works sound while University of Iowa students Noel Mills (center) and Maddie Berg are interviewed abo
Brian James (left) works sound while University of Iowa students Noel Mills (center) and Maddie Berg are interviewed about their student activism projects during David Gould’s Fieldwork in Social Innovation class as the class meets March 22 at MERGE innovation space in Iowa City. This interview and interviews from other students, as well as other video segments, will be edited together and shown during an event at the Englert Theatre. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — College for generations has been, in many ways, about class. Sitting in one, perhaps developing some, and often establishing yourself apart from the social one of your upbringing.

But what if it wasn’t about class? What if students stepped outside the classroom and outside their social constructs with broader visions and expectations for their educational experience — to better the community, state and world in which they live, long before graduation?

It’s already happening. Both across the nation — with millions organizing, speaking and marching for causes — and in Iowa.

In a basement this semester off the downtown Iowa City Pedestrian Mall, a group of students has been meeting, but not for class in the traditional sense.

The students technically are enrolled in University of Iowa Professor David Gould’s “Fieldwork in Social Innovation” class. But the group’s regular meetings don’t involve books or PowerPoint presentations. They involve collaboration, innovation and action.

“I came (to college) kind of thinking I would just learn all this stuff and get the diploma at the end,” said sophomore Maddy Bradley, who — like many of her peers — has changed her mind.

They’re making plans to make a difference. And, in many cases, they’re already doing it.


Bradley, for one, is giving voice to local refugees who have a story to tell but no platform on which to tell it.

Sophomore Maddie Berg is behind a project to encourage clothing consumers to be more mindful about what they wear and where it comes from. Noel Mills is helping fraternities and sororities improve their environmental practices. Mackenzie Conlon is connecting the UI food pantry with local restaurants in hopes of offering gift cards and a taste of the Iowa City culture.

Katy Misel is creating an on-campus pet therapy program, and Emilio Tovar and Kris Yambao are distributing “promise cards” — meant to help individuals hold each other accountable.

“The idea is to write a promise on a card and give it to someone,” Tovar said. “We want to create some accountability throughout the University of Iowa and the Iowa City community as a whole.”

“This is real education,” Honors Program Director Art Spisak said. “These students are excited about what they’re doing. They’re not spending their time doing something just because they know it’s going to be on the test. These are people who are invested in what they’re doing. And that’s when real learning is going on.”

Consider The Green Room, a course within the Honors Program that debuted several years ago with the broad mission of exploring what higher education could and should look like in the 21 century, and to help students prototype meaningful lives.

Its first iteration, which attracted swarms of students both enrolled and not, evolved into a larger community initiative last year, with a series of events at the Englert Theatre focused on topics like wonder, tolerance, story and democracy. The project, which brought in big-name thinkers like Jane Elliot and Khizr Khan and regularly packed the auditorium, pressed those who attended to consider how to make a community smarter, more engaged and more uplifting for its residents.

Another offshoot of the Green Room is happening this weekend, culminating again at the Englert, this time highlighting ways in which the community’s young people are shaping their own education in a broad and more global sense.


“The design of (The Green Room) was not only the notion of inviting the city to school and to engage my students with community in that kind of unique way,” said Gould, who also is an administrator with the UI Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education. “But the hope was that if you were a student, and you connected with the community in that way, then a portion of my students would be interested in building and serving in the community coming out of it.”

The “Special Edition of The Green Room” will showcase those efforts and projects that have emerged from Gould’s “Fieldwork in Social Innovation.” It will center on one specifically entitled, “Prompt for the Planet.”

That endeavor, being led by Shannon Nolan, a teaching assistant for the fieldwork class, involves the first-ever U.S. Youth Poet Laureate and a mission of empowering young people to “change the world.”

Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman crafted the call for youth responses to global challenges facing their generation — climate change, shrinking natural resources, food insecurity, conflict and war, nuclear threats and biosecurity.

“To understand what’s worth fighting for, we must break our mind-set,” according to Gorman’s prompt, which asks young people to think of an element and speak in its voice via pictures and words.

“What would the fires raging in California say to the world?” according to her prompt. “What does freshly fallen rain on a state in drought feel and taste like through poetry? Think of it as creating an open letter from the planet.”

Gould said the prompt has caught fire and inspired responses he didn’t see coming — perhaps motivated by the realities of today.

“It’s like my generation has been throwing this raging party, and then asking my students to come clean it up,” he said. “And we didn’t even invite you in the first place.”


So far, Nolan — the effort’s leaders — has collected nearly 600 entries from this community and around the globe through school workshops and online submissions. They will be displayed during an open house as part of the Green Room’s special edition on Sunday — Earth Day.

Gorman is scheduled to speak at the event, as will former UI student Avery Bang, who while a student in Iowa took it upon herself to connect with the Denver-based Bridges to Prosperity and build a bridge connecting an isolated community in Peru with essential services.

Bang today is chief executive of the Bridges to Prosperity charity.

Even for Gould’s crop of highly-motivated students, replete with vision and ambition, the “how to” has been among the stumbling blocks.

“I really wanted to be involved in the community, and I wanted to make some kind of change,” student Shawnee Molck said. “But I never knew what that first step could be.”

Her classmate, Laura Schwager, agreed that — even today — many across the campus and others in this country “have no idea the level of potential and resources they have to engage with changing their community or applying their disciplines in a higher capacity.”

That is changing, she said, even if slowly, with more young people connecting with social issues and identifying “as change makers.”

“I think it’s a trend that we’re seeing as we shift out of the knowledge phase and into this creative expression in higher education,” Schwager said.

Last month, thousands of students walked out of class and millions nationally participated in a “March for Our Lives” organized by high schoolers in response to gun violence — most recently at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.


While lauding the organic nature of recent youth movements, student Allexis Mahanna said educational institutions like those on Iowa need to continue urging alternative educational experiences and calls to action.

“I just constantly hear complaints about how much school sucks, how boring it is, why am I here?” she said. “If there was a flip in the general education system — although I know that’s a very big task — of having everything be more connected to the community, doing projects where you feel like you’re making a difference and not just memorizing what every other student has memorized, students would have a much more positive attitude when looking at college and education in general.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158;


  • What: A Special Edition of The Green Room: Prompt for the Planet
  • When: Sunday.
  • From 1 to 2 p.m., see what UI social innovation students are doing to enrich the community. Merge, 136 S Dubuque St., Iowa City.
  • Shift down to the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. in Iowa City, for a keynote address from Avery Bang, CEO of Bridges to Prosperity. Also, enjoy music by soprano Jessica Pray, a piece by Amanda Gorman, the U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, and sculptures by UI students.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.