At the University of Minnesota, AFSCME staff know firsthand that not everything students learn comes from books.
"You can read a book on how to play baseball,” Denise Osterholm says, “but until you actually go and swing a baseball bat, you’re not going to be able to learn the sport. Physics is the same way. "
You can read all you want about the math and the reality of nature’s laws. But until you actually practice and see what they do …”
Osterholm, of Local 3801, is lab coordinator for the Physics department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “We study nature’s laws mathematically to understand the laws, so you can more reliably predict what will happen,” Osterholm says. The lab exercises she sets up help students test how physics theory translates from paper into the real world.
Linda Steven translates the conceptual into reality in a very different way. The Local 3937 member is a lead classroom teacher at the University Child Care Center on the Twin Cities campus. The center serves about 150 children of faculty, staff, and graduate students.
But the center is more than a typical day care. “We are charged with demonstrating the cutting edge of early childhood care and education,” Steven says. “So we very strongly keep up to date on what the research is in the field and how to apply it in the classroom, so it works with real little people on two little legs, with snuffy noses, and maybe a crabby disposition in the morning.”
Beyond that, pediatric residents in the university’s medical school also use the center in their training. University departments sometimes use the center for research studies. And education majors pursuing a career in elementary, early childhood, or special education can be assigned to the center as student teachers.
“A surprising number of them have very little experience with real, genuine small people in a real group situation like this,” Steven says of the student teachers. “It’s very interesting to try to help them get a perspective on what they’ve been learning, and how to apply that – the bridge between putting the theoretical and the research into practice.
“And that’s pretty exhilarating when you can see that happen – those moments, the ‘a-ha’ moments. Ahh! That’s what it looks like.”
Turning students into professionals
Across campus, on the seventh floor of Moos Towers, Local 3260’s Ann Kubitza sees “a-ha” moments all the time. She’s a clinical floor assistant who works with third- and fourth-year dental students. They’re learning to work with real patients with real cavities and worse.
“They will tell you that I do know more than they do sometimes,” says Kubitza, who has been at the school 24 years. “The students know that I’ve had that experience. They feel comfortable asking me questions when things arise that they’re not sure of, because they know I’ve seen those things before.”
Over at the dispensary, students learn the tools of their trade, literally. That’s where they pick up all their instruments – “drills, all the scary tools, scrapers, everything they need,” says Local 3260’s Kristyn Maki.
“Sometimes, they’ll come up to our counter asking for something, and they have no idea what it is,” Maki says. “We have to figure it out. And we’ll play charades, or I’ll have them draw a picture, or we’ll just play a name game. It’s actually kind of fun, because they’re learning and it’s kind of nice to help them learn.”
“Being a dental student is not easy,” Kubitza says. “We try to make that experience go as smoothly as possible. We’re their cheerleader when things aren’t going so well. Sometimes, I’m really a den mother who lets them vent. It goes over and beyond the job itself.”