ISU's learning communities rank among nation's best

AMES, Iowa -- One of Iowa State's innovative academic programs has been recognized as one of the country's best.

The learning communities program at ISU is celebrating a decade of success and is listed among the top 25 nationally in a recent U.S. News & World Report ranking. There was no order given for the top 25 schools on the list.

Among the first in the Midwest

Iowa State's learning community program was one of the first in the Midwest and is unique in its approach.

"Our strength is in the way student affairs and academic affairs work together," said Doug Gruenewald, co-director of learning communities at ISU, along with Corly Brooke. "We've been able to bring faculty and staff together across disciplines to create effective learning environments for students. When faculty and staff work closely with first-year students to connect learning across multiple classes, and outside of classrooms, it makes for a more powerful learning experience."

"Iowa State's graduation and retention rates are some of the best in the country for learning community programs," Gruenewald said.

Learning communities offer students, mostly freshmen, the opportunity to join a group of other newcomers who share similar academic interests. For instance, if a student thinks he or she will major in biology, and wants to be involved in a learning community, the student can take biology courses with the group and even live together in the same residence hall.

This way, a new student on campus will be a part of a group of people with similar interests and schedules. The group can study together, learn together, adjust together and, in many cases, socialize together.

Skunk River Navy

One learning community formed the popular Skunk River Navy -- an innovative service learning project in which students learn biology while cleaning a local river.

"When I got here, I didn't know anybody," said Charles Weyer, a Sperry, Iowa, senior. "I don't think I would have gotten the same support if I hadn't been in a learning community."

Weyer spent his first two years as a member of the learning community for students studying natural resource ecology and management. His next two years, he worked as a peer mentor for the group. Many residents of his residence hall floor are members of his or another learning community.

"When you have people you can go to for questions living on the same floor, it really helps out," said Weyer, an animal ecology major.

When ISU started the program in 1995, about 400 students joined one of the 12 communities offered at the time.

Now, more than 2,200 students of all classifications choose to join one of the more than 50 learning communities, with approximately 50 percent of all ISU freshmen participating.

While the communities continue to gain popularity and national reputation, Gruenewald and Brooke aren't finished yet.

"We hope to have a learning community for every student who wants one," Gruenewald said.