Authors: Catherine Bates & Sinead Mc Cann

The morning after a major college social event, chemistry student Kim Daly ran tests for alcohol on samples of breath and urine provided by her fellow-students, to see if they would be safe to drive. She also tested their awareness of the law regarding drinking and driving.  She worked with a local sports team to do more testing and raised their awareness of the law and their limits. Kim’s research project was supervised by her lecturer, Dr Claire McDonnell, and used equipment borrowed from the Garda Road Safety Unit, who were partners on the project. Kim presented her project as part of the annual multidisciplinary TU Dublin College Awareness of Road Safety (CARS) project showcase, which was judged by a panel including a representative of the Garda Road Safety Unit and the President of the Student’s Union. Kim won the overall CARS prize that year for her work, as well as receiving academic credits for her thesis project, which described her research.

How did the CARS project come about? In 2008 the Garda Road Safety Unit approached staff in TU Dublin (Dublin Institute of Technology at that time) to see if it would be possible for students to explore road safety within their coursework. They wanted to target 17-24 year old males in particular with messages about road safety.  This would also have a snowball effect, as students would talk to their friends and family about their work. Twelve years later, TU Dublin students are still working on road safety projects in a range of disciplines, from Engineering (designing a device to record the space which car drivers allow when overtaking cyclists) to Environmental Health (tracking dangerous behaviour by cyclists and pedestrians) to Media (designing video advertisements on road safety). The CARS project has won two Road Safety Authority Leading Lights awards in the third level education category, demonstrating its effectiveness.

Out of the classroom and into the world of social enterprise

Since 2008 TU Dublin’s Programme for Students Learning With Communities has been the engine and support office coordinating collaborative research and learning projects with communities. All these projects are built into the students’ programmes of study, and are co-designed with community partners based on community goals, ideas and research questions, for mutual learning and benefit. Over a thousand students each year in TU Dublin work with a wide range of underserved community organisations, supervised by lecturers.

Rather than giving students a theoretical project on a fictional business for his module on ‘Simulation for Business Analytics’, lecturer Dr Ayman Tobail worked in collaboration with Recycle IT, a community based social enterprise specialising in recycling Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Recycle IT had suggested that Business students evaluate and help to improve their processes.

Students visited their warehouse to understand how they processed incoming electrical waste. Next they built and tested a simulation model. In collaboration with the Recycle IT experts, students were able to use the model to test ways to improve productivity while ensuring that the organization continued to provide training and employment opportunities. Through the collaboration, students learned about the strengths and needs of this organization. Recycle IT received a set of recommendations on how to increase productivity, and are in the process of implementing the most useful of these.

Small collaborative research projects like these are part of a bigger picture in which different sectors of society work together to co-produce solutions to global challenges,. These challenges are interconnected and can’t be effectively addressed alone by any one organization or by researchers in any one subject area. Covid-19 is an example of a global challenge requiring innovative joined-up thinking from across society. Collaborative research is an effective way to generate dynamic solutions to these global challenges. Even small-scale community engaged projects can help prepare students for future jobs and roles where collaborative research skills are needed.

Real-world online journalism

Journalism students for the past 9 years have worked in partnership with primary schools and TU Dublin’s Engagement Outreach Team to plan, edit and write articles for an online news website for primary school children. CLiC News started as a collaboration between a Journalism lecturer, Kate Shanahan, and Engagement Outreach staff Ian Roller and Riona Fitzgerald who were working with schools to improve children’s literacy and technology skills. Every year, 2nd year journalism students elect an editorial team, and with their lecturer learn to run weekly editorial meetings where they pitch proposals for stories, agree what will be written, and by whom, sometimes involving heated debate.

Students upload articles every week during term-time, and the Engagement Outreach team work with schools to encourage and support teachers to introduce their pupils to the website. Children are encouraged to leave comments, and are rewarded through a star grading system, where they can exchange stars for small prizes. The TU Dublin students receive feedback online through the comments, and learn to develop their journalism to this very specific audience. The stories are adapted for 9-12 year old readers, and students are encouraged to tackle topical and current issues such as climate change and elections, as well as the new baby panda in Dublin Zoo. Each semester children from one of the participating schools visit TU Dublin to meet the CLiC News team and explore the audio and TV studios.  This is a highlight for the students who get to meet their readers in person. Kate has since become Head of Journalism, and the project has been sustained and developed by lecturers who have replaced her on this module, most recently Roisin Boyd, who has a background in journalism. The Department of Education and Skills has recommended CLiC News as a valuable resource for primary school children.

These collaborations are genuinely win-win. Community partners bring research questions, experiential knowledge, and strategic goals to these partnerships, and lecturers bring their discipline knowledge and their educational goals for their students. Through these projects, students, communities and lecturers learn together, and exchange and create new knowledge to support positive change. Through TU Dublin’s involvement in the CIRCLET project we are growing our capacity so we can build even more of these projects into the curriculum.

For more information on these and other projects, visit https://www.tudublin.ie/connect/communities/slwc/. At a national level these activities are supported by Campus Engage – www.campusengage.ie.

photograph credits:
– 1: Children from St. Audoen’s National School visiting the 2nd Year Journalism Students at the time of their online journalism class where they discuss the CLiC News website and chat with the students about their course and life in college (Photograph by Conor Mulhern)

– 2: Students and a recent graduate following their presentations at the 2019 CARS project showcase in TU Dublin (Photograph by Sinead McCann)

– 3: Recycle IT staff at work (Photograph by WEEE Ireland)

– 4: During a visit from the girls in Stanhope Street Primary school to the online journalism class, the competition during the quiz with the TU Dublin students got quite competitive (Photograph by Ian Roller)

– 5: CLiC News gives students a real experience of compiling online content aimed at a specific group and an audience for their work (Photograph by Conor Mulhern)