Rosie O’Beirne (left) reviews the Buying Birmingham poster of student Allison Kozlowski during the Freshman Learning Community class Exploring Birmingham. Students toured local neighborhoods, studied the design of the city and then analyzed these components and their relationship to community culture and style.

Danielle McCrary looked at Chyan Ludwig’s house and couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

“That’s the same one I bought,” McCrary said. “Wasn’t it just cute? I loved the way it looked, the location, everything about it.”

Actually, neither McCrary nor Ludwig own a house just yet. The two freshman students were able to purchase their fictional home as part of a game called “Buying Birmingham.” The game is part of the Freshman Learning Community (FLC) class Exploring Birmingham: In Search of the Ideal Community.

An FLC is a set of clustered courses linked by a theme and taken by the same small group of freshmen during the fall semester at UAB. All FLCs include a Freshman Seminar anchor course on the FLC theme, an English composition class and a core math or science class.

Students in the Exploring Birmingham class accumulated pretend money based on events attended during the semester and other class assignments. They then were able to purchase a home in the Birmingham community with the money they earned. The students showcased their houses in tri-fold poster presentations before final exams. McCrary and Ludwig chose a home in the Southside neighborhood – a place with which both became intimately familiar because of the class.

“Many of the communities I’ve seen have great potential, they just need a little help,” McCray says. “Norwood is one neighborhood that sticks out to me. I think it really represents Birmingham as a community.”

What makes community?

Hearing those kinds of comments makes class instructors Rosie O’Beirne and Chris Reaves, Ph.D., smile.

Birmingham isn’t the same place it was four months ago to the students now that they have been on the streets of the city, exploring and talking to the people who work, live and play downtown and in the city’s immediate suburbs. Their thoughts on what makes a community and a neighborhood have changed, as well.

“One of the things we like to do at the beginning of the class is have students draw for us a picture of their ideal community and at the end of the semester we have them do it again,” O’Beirne says. “The change is interesting to see. Many of them took into consideration things like walk-ability and other traditional neighborhood designs that foster social interaction. I feel like that’s a success – that they’re thinking about social interaction as much or more as a house, a car and a garage.”

The students in the class say they got an intimate look at Birmingham through the course. They engaged in activities such as riding the DART, eating at local restaurants, touring local neighborhoods and visiting places such as Park Place, SoHo Square, the Southern History Archives and the Civil Rights Institute, among others. They analyzed these components and their relationship to community culture and lifestyle.

They looked at community planning and the environment’s impact on quality of life, and were introduced to service learning: The class volunteered at Glen Iris Elementary School, and one student continues to volunteer.

Reaves says that experiential learning enables students to develop a deeper understanding of Birmingham’s historical, social, political and environmental landscape.

“We’ve really seen the students engage in the community and learn about Birmingham,” Reaves says. “They’re not just visiting tourist sites in Birmingham, but they are taking a critical look at the history and design of Birmingham and how that affects our quality of life and the living conditions we experience today.”

Strong bond

FLCs are designed to help students get the most out of their first semester at UAB. By being concurrently enrolled with the same group of students in courses linked by a common theme, new freshmen have a ready-made community of study buddies, and instructors who take a special, personalized interest in their progress.

Reaves and O’Beirne are teaching Exploring Birmingham as an FLC for the second consecutive year, and both say the bond among the group is strong.

O’Beirne says that wasn’t a primary learning objective, but “they have a close network now. and they are more likely to stick with school because they have a peer group that’s part of that first-year experience.”

The students became so engaged in the class they sometimes took their assignments further than O’Beirne and Reaves expected.

For example, the students had to interview members of a local community to get impressions of their community and outlooks for the future. One group asked if they could videotape their interviews and post them to the class’ Facebook Web site.

O’Beirne and Reaves also had them post pictures of the communities they were researching on Google Earth.

“We tried to incorporate technologies like the ones they are using anyway, such as Facebook, and we tried to introduce them to some new ones as well,” O’Beirne says.

Marilyn Kurata, Ph.D., director of core curriculum enhancement, spoke with the students about their experiences during their poster presentations.

The feedback she received on their experience was overwhelmingly positive.

“A couple of students told me if it weren’t for their involvement in FLCs they would have come to class and gone back home,” she says. “By taking part in FLCs they get to know people. They attend cultural events and explore the city. That fosters a desire for them to actually stay on campus or go into the city. They have a better sense of belonging.”