Community and Environmental Sociology Capstone Classes

Spring 2012 in South Madison

In the spring of 2012, the inaugural Community and Environmental capstone course, led by Professor Randy Stoecker, partnered with SouthWest Madison Community Organizers (SWMCO)–a neighborhood-based organization on Madison’s southwest side. Three students–Shelbi Jentz, Annabelle Potvin, and Lamark Shackerford–along with Ashleigh Ross–a graduate assistant loaned from the Morgridge Center, spent the semester supporting SWMCO’s efforts to establish a community center in a vacant duplex in the area. They suffered the “make it up as we go” challenges of all such community projects along with the challenges of even getting to the community site when the scheduled cabs didn’t show up.

Our job, as the university partner, was to help SWMCO gather information that could help them in their quest for establishing a community center. In our first meeting with the community, at a meeting room of the west district police station, we outlined the issues facing the community that led to the desire for a the community center and the questions that needed to be answered in their quest. The first thing SEMCO members wanted to know was what other community centers did. So the students gathered information on 11 other community centers in Madison, and in Columbus Ohio. Instead of writing a regular report, we reported the results as lists of activities superimposed upon a floor plan for a house–one room contained youth activities, one contained adult activities, one contained budgeting and staffing information, and so on.

We went back to the next meeting at the police station in the neighborhood with this draft. As residents discussed what they were learning from the research, they decided that the kinds of things they wanted to do with the building might run into challenges from zoning laws, building codes, and laws governing accessibility for persons with disabilities. So the students then went out to learn about those things. None of them expected they would be learning about things like ramp slopes, fire extinguisher placement, and how to change a zoning designation.

At the next meeting with SWMCO to report on those findings, this time at the Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ on the other end of the neighborhood, residents came to the conclusion that they needed information on funding strategies and governance. So one more time we went into research mode and brought our final information to the community. It was there that the project took its most interesting and important turn. As residents discussed all that they had learned, knowing that the physical community center would be a long-term project, they decided that they could start a community center without walls in the streets of the neighborhood. They organized volunteers, raised over $600 for supplies, and got permission to block off a residential street on Monday afternoons during the summer.

Our capstone class brought residents together so that they could have conversations about a community center, learn about how community centers worked, and perhaps use the knowledge and time together to then take the ball into their own hands. In a year, who knows, maybe the community center they started will have walls.

Last Child in the Park

This spring semester, C&ES seniors will have the opportunity to take a unique course called “Last Child in the Park” as the capstone experience for the major. Offered for five consecutive semesters now, the course places UW- Madison undergraduates in a mentoring relationship with students from Sherman Middle School. The group spends each Wednesday afternoon exploring nearby Warner Park to learn what the park and its landscape and wild creatures have to teach, and what class participants–college students and middle schoolers alike–have to teach each other. The course takes its name–“Last Child in the Park”–from a gloss on the title of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

C&ES Professor Jack Kloppenburg leads the course with Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies graduate student Trish O’Kane. The course has its roots in O’Kane’s dissertation work. O’Kane lives on the edge of Madison’s Warner Park. Madison’s second largest park, Warner has the usual complement of soccer fields, softball diamonds and a dog park. But it also contains a unique set of wild areas that support significant biodiversity including some 114 bird species, nesting cranes, and a pair of red foxes. There is now considerable controversy as to whether Warner ought to be managed as a “recreation park” or a “conservation park.”

Warner Park is located on Madison’s socially and racially diverse North side. Sherman Middle School serves this community, and some 60% of its students live in poverty. Although Warner Park is only a few blocks from the school, few of Sherman’s students are familiar with the park, use its facilities, or feel that it is “their” space. Our C&ES capstone course pairs UW students as after-school mentors with Sherman students, and serves as a portal to engagement with the natural world for kids to whom too much of the world–natural and social–is a threat rather than a comfort.

Each Wednesday, fifteen UW students and 20-30 middle schoolers meet at Sherman and then walk to Warner Park. For the next three hours in the park–collectively and in small groups–they may plant prairie seeds, play games, count birds, collect leaves, build forts in the woods, or venture out onto frozen water for the first time in their lives. By emphasizing the writing of field notes and offering regular opportunities for the kids to tell the class about their experiences, UW participants help their Sherman counterparts develop academic and social skills while building an awareness of and appreciation for the natural resources of Warner Park.

The program, now called “Nature Explorers,” has become the after-school activity with the highest attendance at Sherman. School staff report enhanced confidence, achievement, and behavioral adjustments as results of the class. This past spring semester, the Sherman students gave Madison’s mayor a tour of what they now regard as their park and its special places. Three students testified before the Madison Parks Commission on policy matters related to Warner. And Sherman and UW students alike participated in a solidarity march after a shooting in a public housing development on the park’s boundary.

No more “nature deficit” among either UW or Sherman students. Perhaps even more importantly, both college students and middle schoolers are learning what it means to be a citizen of a particular place. See a press account of the program at

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