Acts of God

History Course Uses Missouri as a Learning Laboratory
Leslie Daggs, Olivia Wright, Jenny Dashner, and Kira Kirk

MU students Leslie Daggs, Olivia Wright, Jenny Dashner, and Kira Kirk tour the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant as part of Prof. Jerry Frank's "Acts of God: An Environmental History of Natural Disasters" history course.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

MU communication major Olivia Wright walked the stage at the College of Arts and Science commencement this May even though she won’t officially graduate until August. Still needing a few credit hours to complete her degree, Wright enrolled in a two-week history course in late May called Acts of God: An Environmental History of Natural Disasters, taught by Associate Professor of History Jerry Frank. The name of the course is taken from a book written by one of Frank’s colleagues that changed how he views the world.

Wright says she loves reading about natural disasters and thought the course would be fun; it actually changed the trajectory of her career.

“I want to go into government when I’m done with college, and this class definitely made me want to start working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or something like that to help people in a disaster,” Wright says. “I think what I want to do is crisis communications, so this class was perfect for that.”

Frank says it’s not unusual for some of his students to rethink their career paths after taking his field course. This is the third year he has offered his Acts of God history course.

“It’s gratifying to watch students interact with business owners and representatives from local, state, and federal government agencies and discuss internships and career paths,” Frank says. “As a result of this class, some of my students are going to get on the FEMA website and take the free online course modules to build their resumes in order to intern with the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) in Jefferson City.”

You Can’t Get That in a Book

He says he first encountered experiential learning as the director of service learning for environmental studies at Western State Colorado University and “was blown away by what kind of transformations can happen in interactive and immersive learning environments.” As an instructor, Frank says he spends a lot of time telling students that history matters and that history helps us understand our world, but says he felt like he didn’t always do a good enough job of demonstrating to students how and why having a historical perspective helps shape and enhance their understanding of current events. As he was developing his courses at MU, Frank says he also thought about the costs of study abroad, something he could not afford to do when he was a student. So he created a course that combined intensive class readings and that leverages the state as learning laboratory—a study-abroad-at-home model.

MU power plant

                                    Prof. Frank's class tours the MU power plant

“The first week is primarily all class based, so we are doing intensive readings, and learning history and natural disaster theory. The second week is all field based, where we travel to different sites,” Frank says. “What I’m trying to get students to do is to take what they have learned in the classroom—the theory and the history—and to be able to see that in a particular landscape and to be able to hear that from our hosts. You never know who is going to get what, frankly, and that’s part of what is so powerful about the experiential learning model is that people are able to engage and get what they want and need.”

Ambassadors for Mizzou

Jennifer Dashner, a senior from St. Charles, Missouri, majoring in family and lifespan development in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, also solidified her career choice after taking Frank’s course.

“I plan on using my degree, once I complete grad school, for being a school counselor and to work with the Red Cross on their mental health disaster team, so this is all leading up to that,” she says. Dashner, like Wright, says her favorite tour was of the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant.

Columbia wastewater treatment plant

                       First impressions at the Columbia Regional Wastewater Treatment facility

Kirksville, Missouri, native Lara Benson, a senior majoring in history and psychology, says she was the only student whose favorite field trip was the Columbia Wastewater Treatment Plant. 

“It felt like I was actually seeing what was being done as opposed to other tours where we were only shown so much, but at the wastewater plant they could show us everything,” Benson says. “That affects my everyday life, whereas the Mark Twain National Forest doesn’t affect my life in the same way.”

That’s the kind of response Frank says he would not get if his course was limited to the classroom.

“We need to be more creative and more proactive in engaging our students and building bridges between higher education and the world beyond,” he says. “It’s not just the students who are going on tour, but a little piece of Mizzou gets to go to these places, so the people across the state get to see who our students are and how amazing they are. It’s a two-way learning street where we’re out there as ambassadors for the university.”

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