Improving Grease Disposal Behavior: Combining the Classroom, Real-World Experience and Service Learning in a Public Relations Practicum

Improving Grease Disposal Behavior: Combining the Classroom, Real-World Experience and Service Learning in a Public Relations Practicum

  • Robin Rothberg, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Sayde J. Brais, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Alan R. Freitag, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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Abstract

In 2011, the North Carolina Urban Water Consortium approved a grant funding a communication planning project by University of North Carolina at Charlotte researchers aimed at addressing the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, North Carolina. The research results, summarized in a 157-page report, led to additional funding to support initial implementation of elements of the strategic communication plan. Faculty in UNC Charlotte’s Communication Studies Department undertook this phase of the project and crafted a Public Relations Practicum course to support it. This paper describes the course structure and evaluates its effectiveness as measured by both student outcomes and client satisfaction. Results point to the academic and professional development value of a course that combines classroom structure, practical experience and service learning. Initial responses from clients suggest satisfaction with the quality of products and services as well.
Keywords: Experiential learning, practicum, service learning

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Menu: Abstract | PDF | Introduction | Literature Review | Method | Results | Discussion & Conclusions | References

Introduction

In its landmark 1999 report, the Commission on Public Relations Education (“Port of Entry”) called for PR programs in universities and colleges to develop curricula responsive to the dynamic needs of the profession. The report, an initiative of the Public Relations Society of America, noted the rapid growth and acceptance of public relations as a management and leadership function increasingly indispensable and valued, requiring commensurate improvements in higher education programs graduating new generations of entry-level practitioners. Among the Commission’s guidelines is the call for curricula to produce graduates “well-prepared in public relations theory and practice, tested not only in the classroom but in the field” (p. 1). Among the report’s recommendations regarding modes of instructional delivery, emphasis is placed on experiential learning, supervised work experience and service learning in addition to more traditional, classroom-based pedagogies. In a subsequent 2006 report (“The Professional Bond”), the Commission reported continued academic and professional support for experiential learning, noting “…public relations education should include an internship, practicum or other work experience in the field” (p.20).

The Certified in Education for Public Relations-certified undergraduate public relations program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is designed to be in compliance with “Port of Entry” and “The Professional Bond” guidelines and includes requirements for experiential learning along with a comprehensive agenda of public relations, communication and liberal arts courses. The university’s proximity to a large and rapidly growing metropolitan area makes it an internship-rich environment. Despite the large number of public relations undergraduate students, only about one-third of available internships can be filled each academic term, so abundant are the opportunities in the metropolitan region. Students are required to complete one internship and are encouraged to complete more if their schedules permit. Still, as valuable as internships are to a student’s professional development, the lack of direct and frequent faculty engagement in the internship experience introduces a level of uncertainty regarding the usefulness of each individual internship. Of course, each internship opportunity is carefully vetted and monitored, but the program still relinquishes a degree of control. The challenge is to craft additional opportunities that combine real-world experience with a higher degree of qualified faculty guidance and involvement. Two years ago, UNC Charlotte’s program benefitted from just such an opportunity.

In spring 2013, nine undergraduate public relations students at UNC Charlotte were competitively selected for a PR Practicum course offered as the third and tactical step in an ongoing, collaborative project involving the university and the North Carolina Urban Water Consortium (UWC). The overarching aim of the project was to address the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, North Carolina. The UWC identified two groups for researchers to target: multifamily housing residents and Latinos, populations identified by the Consortium as potentially contributing disproportionately to problems caused by improper FOG disposal. Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) often result from improper FOG disposal, incur significant corrective costs for water utilities (costs that must be passed on to customers) and pose potential public health issues. Consequently, reducing SSOs is in the interest of community members both as residents and utility rate payers. The aim of the project was to gauge levels of issue awareness among the target populations, identify constraints preventing desirable behavioral changes and craft a strategic communication plan to encourage proper FOG disposal. Thus, the first two project phases involved extensive research followed by the development of a comprehensive, strategic communication plan to address the issue. For a full description of the initial research and planning phases of the overall project, see Freitag, Rothberg and Brais (2014). This report addresses the third phase – initial, tactical implementation of the plan – and describes how this aspect was undertaken in the context of an undergraduate public relations elective course.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Two primary conceptual approaches to public relations education are at play in the context of this case: experiential learning and service learning. Of course, scholars nearly universally agree that effective programs successfully blend the theoretical with the applied. In fact, Motschall and Najor (2001) believe, “The orientation of an entire undergraduate public relations program or curriculum should reflect this same effort to blend theory with application” (p. 6). Most scholars agree that for a program to be successful, instruction must contribute to students’ application beyond the classroom, into the real world through the use of practical application in the form of service-learning activities, using the client-centered approach, and a response-oriented approach to experiential learning (Gleason & Violette, 2012; Motschall & Najor, 2001). It is through these approaches that teaching becomes “…more relevant, predictable and scalable” (Gleason & Violette, 2012, p. 281). UNC Charlotte’s goal was to introduce this applied element but within the framework of extensive faculty engagement to ensure participating students grasped the direct correlation between abstract theory and a real-world problem.
Experiential learning opportunities strengthen the connection between theory and application for greater student understanding. As Gleason and Violette (2012) note, “The study of Public Relations is not abstract or idealized, but rather is most effective when it takes place in the context of its real-world application” (p. 280). Experiential learning allows for the blending of theory and application to take place through simulations, real-life experiences, client-based cases, and more. When applying to practical problems the principles they’ve learned in the classroom, students experience a shift in meaning, and they begin to tangibly recognize public relations as having importance and value in society because they see the function it serves (Motion & Burgess, 2014).

Experience is a crucial credential for any professional, but accumulating it early, even before completion of an entry-level degree, can be challenging. Accumulating experience requires opportunity, and that’s not always practical in many higher education settings. Gleason and Violette (2012) acknowledge the importance of scholarship but judge experience to be even more useful for practitioners aiming to provide wise counsel to clients. Thus, courses that provide students with experiential learning opportunities will benefit the student both academically and professionally.

The Experiential Learning Model, developed by Kolb (1984), provides a framework for the assessment of the association among education, work and personal development. Kolb maintains that the retention of abstract concepts is significantly enhanced when those concepts are presented and demonstrated in the context of real-world experience along with reflection and experimentation. Experiential learning, through the form of simulations or client-interaction, can help students gain professional knowledge, while also engaging students in active learning, defined as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2).

The “Client-Centered Approach” amplifies the concept of practical application through the use of simulations and classroom exercises and allows students the opportunity to develop materials for an often real-life client. The approach applies the knowledge and skills foundational to public relations to a real-world problem (Motschall & Najor, 2001). Often described as a service-learning approach (Gleason & Violette, 2012), working toward something tangible for an actual client provides for a re-conceptualization of “public relations as a communicative function that is deployed not only by corporations, but also by local community organizations and even by individuals” (Motion & Burgess, 2014, p. 530). Although this client-centered model may be advantageous, even preferable, it is not always a plausible option due to budget (unless the client can underwrite costs), class size (less feasible in large classes), or other constraints. In fact, Miller and McCain (2012) maintain that the biggest challenge faced by curriculum planners lies with lower enrollment cap requirements for these classes, creating budgetary pressures. Further, there is a sensitive dimension to working with real clients because of the need for the instructor to monitor carefully all interaction between multiple individuals and teams. Demands on client time can quickly become unmanageable, there may be breeches in customary business protocol by inexperienced students, and relationships can become strained. Overseeing these dynamics even on a modest scope can be trying, yet most courses are taught by a single instructor with no assistance (Motschall & Najor, 2001). In this case, the authors felt teaching a practicum course using the client-centered model, led by an instructor and aided by graduate assistants, provided the best model for students. Not only does it provide real-world practice, but in many cases it also provides students an opportunity to improve the community. Additionally, the use of real clients positively affects student perception of the instructor’s credibility (White, 2001). Further benefit accrues because students can exercise an assortment of real-life tasks and scholastic skills such as research, writing, speaking and team-work (Miller & McCain, 2012). In fact, these experiences “allow students to begin to develop an instinct for appropriate action based on ‘real-life’ situations” (Motschall & Najor, 2001, p. 7).

Benecke and Bezuidenhout (2011) consider experiential learning to be crucial for students’ career preparation, but lament that its use is not widely employed. Bringle and Hatcher (1996) felt so strongly about the value of experiential learning that they outlined the Comprehensive Action Plan for Service Learning (CAPSL), a guide for creating and implementing service learning programs on campuses, programs that focus on strategies to engage the institution, faculty, students and the community in a cooperative approach. Nearly two decades later, Hatcher and Studer (2015) assessed service learning as a process for developing “civic-minded graduates” (p. 12), finding service learning curricula to be of crucial value to students and communities. This was further confirmed by Novak, Markey and Allen (2007) in their meta-analysis of service learning literature. They found a positive relationship between service learning and development of students’ cognitive capacity, understanding of subject matter, skill acquisition, and “ability to apply knowledge and reframe complex issues” (p. 153).

Swords and Kiely (2010) provide a model for service learning aimed primarily at faculty, whom they see as pivotal to the service learning approach. They cite four key components of their model: pedagogy, institution/organizational learning, research, and community development. Further, they suggest such a model can lead to faculty becoming change agents, building and strengthening relationships between the institution and the community. This model is mirrored in the Kolb and Kolb (2011) observation that learning is best conceived as a process and that knowledge is gained through transformative experiences.

Based on this understanding of the value and framework for experiential and service learning, the authors saw in the FOG project an opportunity to develop a public relations practicum course that would allow students to work for an actual client and toward addressing a societal issue – in this case, an issue involving both public health and monetary costs. Student participation in such an act of “civic responsibility,” the literature suggests, helps to build mutually beneficial relationships with multiple stakeholders beyond that of the client themselves (Motion & Burgess, 2014). While challenges would remain, the confluence of opportunity and support compelled the authors to proceed.

To gauge the value of experiential and service-learning approaches for public relations curricula, the following research questions were posed:
RQ1: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their academic development expectations?
RQ2: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their professional development expectations?
RQ3: In what ways did the course meet those expectations?
Within the scope of these RQs, we were interested in learning whether students viewed favorably the structure of the course, such as its emphasis on laboratory time, the presence of two instructors and the participation of client representatives. We also wanted to determine if students believed the PR practicum improved their confidence and marketability as communication professionals, and we hoped to learn what important concepts and skills the students felt they acquired from the experience. We also sought to gauge the value of the practicum to the client:
RQ4: To what extent will utility representatives find materials created by UNC Charlotte students potentially useful for FOG-related communication?
RQ5: To what extent will utility representatives report they have employed and implemented materials and concepts developed by students in this PR practicum?

METHOD

Fundamentally, this is a case study following the model employed by Wooddell (2009) called action research. This qualitative approach might be encompassed within the broader parameters of participant-observer research, but action research has, as Wooddell explains, several unique characteristics: the researcher is not merely observing but is actively engaged, the intent is to effect improvement of some condition, and there is attention paid to the learning cycle of the project under observation – the process of feedback and reflection. O’Brien’s (2001) definitive description of action research credits German researcher Kurt Lewin with introducing the method to social science during the late 1940s and says the process requires that “a group of people identify a problem, do something to resolve it, see how successful their efforts were, and if not satisfied, try again” (p. 2). O’Brien lists Education Action as one of four streams of action research and says advocates of this stream maintain that “professional educators should become involved in community problem-solving” (2001, p. 7). This project follows that admonition.

Within O’Brien’s (2001) concept of action research, however, the researchers also employed two surveys comprising closed-ended and open-ended items to collect and analyze quantitative data and additional qualitative data. Students involved in the class and representatives of municipal utility offices were separately surveyed via Survey Share 6 months following the final, in-class student presentations to utility clients. Survey instruments were simple: 10 items on the student survey and nine items on the utility representative survey. Each survey used 5-point Likert scales for valence items and nominal response options for others, but the instruments also sought narrative elaboration on selected items. All nine participating students completed their surveys, and 4 of 12 utility representatives responded. Although the overall response rate was perfect for students and marginally acceptable (roughly 33%) for utility representatives, the low census numbers preclude the use of measures of statistical strength or inferential statistical projections. We can report that all nine students in the class were female, upper-level undergraduate students following the public relations concentration within a broader communication major. The selection of all female participants in the class was not purposeful but rather reflects the gender imbalance typical of undergraduate public relations programs in the U.S. The small number of survey participants precluded collection of further demographic data because its collection would have diminished anonymity and, therefore, candid responses.

Survey items for utility representatives asked respondents to identify and prioritize their target publics, list their greatest needs in terms of FOG-prevention communication, suggest the degree to which student-designed collateral materials would contribute to FOG-prevention efforts, and identify those student-created materials they found the most promising. The survey also asked which materials and student recommendations had been implemented during the 6 months since the in-class presentations and asked for initial assessments of the effectiveness of those items and tactics. Survey items were derived from analytical and evaluative instruments used previously for similar projects by the Energy and Environmental Assistance Office (EEAO), an agency of the researchers’ home university. The EEAO was awarded the original grant for the FOG research project and engaged the authors’ academic department in carrying out the project.

The student survey’s 10 items asked students to list positive and negative factors about their experience in the class; how the class affected their aspirations for a career in public relations; their assessment of the value of small class size, client in-class participation, and the self-paced class structure; the degree to which the class experience improved their “marketability” as entry-level job seekers; self-assessment of the quality of class-generated products; and whether they would recommend a similar class to other students. The survey also asked each student if he or she had been offered and had accepted a full- or part-time position in public relations or a directly related field. Student survey items were adapted from standard student course evaluation instruments and tailored to the practicum setting. As with the utility representative survey, quantitative and qualitative survey responses were entered on Excel spreadsheets for analysis.

Planning the Class

The authors were actively engaged in the initial FOG research and planning project that had begun more than a year before this class started and recognized within it the opportunity to incorporate a service/experiential learning opportunity for advanced undergraduate public relations students. Two of the authors of this report were directly involved in developing and delivering the course and conducted the active research component of this report. The elective course the researchers designed was promoted as a “beyond books” opportunity to develop public relations materials for water utilities across North Carolina promoting proper disposal of FOG. Applications required qualified students to address several essay questions regarding their level of commitment, expectations and qualifications. Applicants were winnowed to result in a small group gifted in writing, editing, and graphic design/layout, along with qualities such as creativity, passion, detail orientation and leadership. The class was further aligned in three smaller teams. A portion of the grant from the UWC allowed the teams to create FOG-related materials for 12 of the largest UWC utilities as well as for up to 300 smaller utilities across the state. Funding support enabled access to professional-level stock photography, printing and other resources. Importantly, the grant also funded a graduate student to meet with each of the 12 primary utilities before the class began to ascertain unique expectations for materials students would create through Public Relations Practicum coursework.

One full-time lecturer and one graduate assistant led the class and guided student efforts. Graded items included: attendance, each student group’s calendar/plan for the term, two student-written critiques of their group’s progress, two peer grades extracted from the student-written critiques, the group’s final set of documents/materials, and the group’s client presentation.

To address research questions, students and utility representatives received online surveys via Survey Share 6 months after the students presented their work to utility representatives. Because all students in the practicum were graduating seniors, the survey also occurred roughly 6 months after completing their bachelor’s degrees. All students responded to their 10-question survey, while four utility representatives responded to their nine-question survey.

Conducting the Class

In their semester of work, students worked in teams of three to craft FOG education materials in English and Spanish including door hangers, brochures, instructional videos, bill stuffers, grocery store receipt advertisements, infographics, social media outreach concepts, T-shirt designs, PSA storyboards, and teacher lesson plans. Students also created display items for utilities’ in-person interaction with customers (often from a booth at county fair-type events) such as a clear plastic tube filled with glue substituting for FOG. A student-made cookbook offered recipes that replaced store-bought oils with a consumer’s own leftover cooking grease, and a student-designed website consolidated utilities’ disparate and fragmented FOG concepts into a single, statewide message. All materials and concepts followed strategies prescribed in the planning document that constituted the initial deliverable of the grant project and which led to the creation of the PR Practicum course.

Students met with utility representatives at the beginning and middle of the course for guidance. At the beginning of the course, the purpose of the meeting was to understand the utilities’ unique needs so students could customize materials for statewide use. The purpose of the mid-semester meeting was for students to show drafts of concepts. Most utility representatives drove – some for more than 2 hours each way – to meet with students in person, though Skype allowed for interaction with utility representatives who could not come to the computer lab where the class met. The class also collectively chose one student representative to present at the 15th Annual Water Resources Research Institute Conference in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2013, where she showcased a poster depicting work common to all groups.

At the end of the course, nearly all of the 12 major UWC utilities sent at least one representative to student team presentations of finished, professionally printed sets of materials. Those attending utility representatives said they planned to re-present all three teams’ concepts to utilities’ respective legal and corporate communications departments. Students had believed utilities were looking for one, coherent, statewide message regarding FOG. Surprisingly, though, many utilities said they planned to use materials from all three groups, despite the groups’ slightly different approaches, with one utility member noting: “I’ve been saying, ‘Don’t pour grease down the drain’ for 5 years – now I have three new ways to say it!” Utility representatives expressed plans to offer the cookbook to cooking shows on local and network TV stations, as well as to restaurants in Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design-certified buildings.

Although utilities have already used multiple student-created items in their outreach efforts, coursework for this class was designed both to educate students and to satisfy the needs of potential employers, as the principles underlying experiential and service learning would attest. So, a full estimation of this Public Relations Practicum requires a gauge of student satisfaction and learning outcomes from the practicum-delivery model. Additionally, a measure of utility satisfaction with student-created materials will help assess the value of this pedagogical approach.

FINDINGS/RESULTS

The surveys yielded qualitative and quantitative data for each research question.
RQ1: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their academic development expectations?
RQ2: To what extent will students report that this PR practicum met their professional development expectations?
RQ3: In what ways did the course meet those expectations?

Six of the 9 students, surveyed 6 months following the course (and their own graduation) had been offered and accepted professional positions in public relations. All responding students agreed that the course resulted in improved professional portfolios. Seven of 9 said the course improved their presentation skills, and 8 of 9 reported improved self-confidence. Similarly, 8 of 9 students said they advanced their ability to work in teams and acquire other skills that helped in their job searches. Eight of 9 also said they had improved their client relation skills such as participating in meetings and processing feedback. Seven of 9 responding students said there were no negative aspects of the class. Only one student reported not having improved teamwork skills. Asked their strength of agreement with the statement, “PR Practicum was a worthwhile course that improved my confidence and marketability as a communication professional,” 7 of 9 students “strongly agreed” and 2 “agreed.”

Key qualitative findings among students revealed their impression that the unique benefit of the classroom setting and low student-faculty ratio was the students’ ability to discuss work in progress immediately with the lead instructor or graduate assistant. Sample survey responses include:

• “Having laboratory time twice a week with two professors was a huge plus. They were always there to oversee our work as well as answer our questions.”
• “[B]eing able to get individual time with teachers to help direct your work on a professional level is something students don’t get too often in undergrad, and that was extremely helpful!”
• “The ratio gave us a sense of one-on-one mentoring. The workshop style allowed us a ‘true’ PR professional atmosphere.”

Of note: Though two teams always met in the assigned classroom, one did not. In that regard, a former student praised the flexibility of class laboratory time, as her group was the one that used a few class sessions to work off-site to create a conceptual display model based on clear plastic tubes with “FOG” glue. Because it would be impractical to bring to a classroom tubes and glue that then had to set as the glue dried, the group crafted the items at a student’s off-campus apartment. Those students used the cameras on their smart phones to send course instructors real-time photos and videos of the production process. This allowed instructors to offer instant feedback, even though the students were not in the classroom.

To understand why students deemed the course successful in improving their confidence and marketability as a communication professional, it is necessary to understand how the items created affected the students’ professional aspirations, qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative results suggest this student satisfaction took the form of empowerment, as student responses to the open-ended survey question, “How did the FOG items you created in PR Practicum, individually or as part of a team, affect you as an aspiring professional communicator?” include:

• “Creating these materials allowed me to tap into a creative gene in me that I never knew existed.”
• “The FOG items I created helped me realize new skills such as graphic design and helped me realize the communication skills needed to go into such projects. It helped improve my confidence and hone my skills to make me a well-rounded employee.”
• “My group took a very modern approach to the course, with upbeat content and [visually] appealing design to cater more toward women. I think it’s safe to say we all left our presentation feeling confident in our campaign and our presentation.”

Empowerment isn’t useful without being underpinned by specific knowledge, skills and abilities, so Practicum students needed to be queried on this aspect of the class. In response to the open-ended question, “What important concepts did you take away from PR Practicum?” the students surveyed described how PR Practicum enhanced their knowledge, skills and abilities in areas such as time-management, group communication and collaboration, adaptation to client needs, speedy subject matter assimilation, and presentation skills. One student captured the sentiment of numerous responses: “In my current job, I make presentations, communicate with clients and create similar materials. Without the practice in PR Practicum, I would have had a really hard time. I started my job with a major advantage.”
Other responses frame this student satisfaction with the course in terms of career aspirations and encouragement to other students considering enrolling in a similar course:

• “The skills I developed and used in the PR Practicum are skills I now use every day in my [job]. I strongly encourage all students serious about landing a job right after graduation to enroll in this class.”
• “Because of the work experience I gained, and the professional-grade materials I created in PR Practicum, I was able to land a job before graduation at one of the top agencies in the U.S. I also started on a level above most college graduates.”

Another value a surveyed student reported was client feedback in the beginning, middle, and end stages of the class: “Having different clients with different needs and tastes was definitely a challenge, but it helped me to learn how to take one overall product and mold it to what everyone else wants.” One responding student noted the professional lesson inherent in client feedback: “The client time was extremely helpful.” The student also wrote:

It was hard hearing criticism, but it was probably the most important lesson learned in class. Real, constructive criticism is something you’re not exposed to normally in college, and it is definitely something you’ll be exposed to in a career. It helped because I was able to learn how to take such criticism and improve my work.

This client interaction leads to the research questions posed to the utility representatives.
RQ4: To what extent will utility representatives find materials created by UNC Charlotte students potentially useful for FOG-related communication?

The survey of municipal utility representatives began by asking them to identify the primary audience segments they hoped to influence with FOG materials and strategies developed by the student teams. Of course, this basic question was integral to research conducted at the outset of the multi-year project and refined by students in PR Practicum. The item was included in the survey to provide a region-specific benchmark for potential future research and to reinforce the core aim of the communication effort. Nominal responses included: “General Community,” 3 of 4 respondents; “Restaurants and Restaurant Owners,” 3 of 4 respondents; “Subsidized Housing/Apartments,” 3 of 4 respondents; and “Latinos” and “Local Schools,” 1 respondent each. Given the option, no respondents added any audience segments under the “Other” category. These results confirmed findings of the initial project research preceding the PR Practicum course.

To further frame the context for this research question, one of the survey items asked utility representatives to indicate their municipality’s most important needs in terms of FOG communication materials. From a nominal list of collateral materials, respondents reported needs for “bill inserts,” 3 of the 4 respondents; “fact sheets,” 3 of the 4 respondents; and “event displays,” 3 of the 4 respondents. Two of the 4 respondents reported a need for “post card/infographics” and “door hangers.” One in 4 respondents reported needs for “brochures,” “educational activities,” “fliers,” “potty pamphlets” (on what should properly be disposed of in a toilet) and “other” (without elaboration). None of the respondents selected from the nominal options “blog templates,” “cookbooks,” “contest layouts,” “PSA storyboards,” “receipt stamps,” or “T-shirt designs.”

To determine the degree to which respondents were satisfied that PR Practicum student teams had addressed their needs, the survey used two Likert-scale items. Of the 4 utility survey respondents, 3 “agreed” with the statement: “With the UNC Charlotte student materials, I feel my municipality is adequately prepared to reach out to its target audience(s).” None “strongly agreed,” and 1 checked “other” but did not elaborate. Two respondents agreed and 1 strongly agreed (the 4th indicated “undecided”) with the statement: “The materials the UNC Charlotte students created are useful for my municipality’s FOG communication.”

The respondents who “agreed” that materials were useful explained, “They created materials that we might not have the time to develop,” and “Obtaining a different perspective from the students’ creation of material helped in having new thoughts and ideas being brought to the FOG control issue. As regulators we sometimes lose sight of what residents and citizens know or think about FOG.” The respondent who “strongly agreed” with the usefulness of the materials said they “conveyed a given message with the benefit of ‘new eyes’ on the issue,” while even the undecided respondent reported, “The material helped us re-evaluate our current educational materials.”

RQ5: To what extent will utility representatives report they have employed and implemented materials and concepts developed by students in this PR practicum?

Two of 4 responding utility representatives indicated their agencies were using student-developed postcard/infographics, and 1 in 4 indicated they were using brochures, door hangers, fact sheets, fliers, the “potty pamphlet” and event displays based on concepts and designs developed by the student teams. One respondent expressed frustration in the municipality’s inability to use more of the student-created items:

Staffing levels do not facilitate the amount of time needed to implement more. We have used the postcards for small geographic areas (a condominium complex) that experienced a sewer overflow due to grease. Again, more materials would be integrated if we had the manpower to spread the word. We appreciated all their hard work!

For other utilities, red tape seemed to be a barrier: “We have included some of the educational approaches found in the materials, just have not been able to incorporate [the] town’s seal for official use. We have used the grease/debris pipe display for our events. Good visual.”

DISCUSSION

As measured by student satisfaction and learning outcomes, as well as utility/client satisfaction with student-created materials, this Public Relations Practicum appears to have been a useful course offering. Student responses to their survey favorably gauge the practical/applied aspects of the course, and the authors can attest to the theoretical dimensions they addressed in class in the form of principles and guidelines of practice. This fulfills the tenets of experiential learning as described in the literature review, and this PR Practicum addresses the challenge for public relations students of acquiring and refining relevant skills while still in their academic, pre-professional stage. The context of a real-world issue of consequence fits squarely with Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning Model and bridges theory and application. Thus, the course design appears to satisfy Gleason and Violette’s (2012) concern that limiting public relations education to traditional classroom curriculum designs risks restricting student understanding to abstract and idealized contexts. Additionally, the combination of close attention from the course instructor(s), experience in multiple client-involved discussions and presentations, and the development of professional-quality portfolio items serves Kolb’s (1984) standards of reflection and experimentation; for example, recall one student’s recognition that constructive criticism from the client was useful not only in the development of strategies and tactics but also in preparing the student to face and benefit from such feedback in future professional settings.

As students reported and PR Practicum instructors observed, the course contributed to student development in skill sets specifically cited in the 2006 report of the Commission on Public Relations Education (“The Professional Bond”): presentation skills (beyond the traditional assignment reports); audience segmentation; problem-solving and negotiation; and working with current issues. The authors acknowledge, of course, that the practicum approach would be difficult, even ill-advised, to duplicate in course settings such as Public Relations Writing or Public Relations Campaigns where students initially acquire fundamental craft skills. The practicum model, as applied in this case, requires that students enter the class with reasonable public relations skills nearly approaching professional entry-level standards.

The practicum setting certainly appears to support Bonwell and Eison’s (1991) contention that active learning adds value to the curriculum, and it does so in ways a traditional internship cannot. A public relations internship site supervisor could not be expected to work with a student to the same degree or with the same intent as a seasoned faculty member. This practicum framework offered a number of advantages when compared to an internship: students reinforced each other’s learning experience through teamwork; students had daily access, if needed, to instructors; and students had immediate access to university amenities such as the library, computer laboratories, meeting rooms, media production facilities, etc. Still, the authors certainly agree with the Commission on Public Relations Education in maintaining that at least one professional internship should be required in the undergraduate public relations curriculum. Internships bring their own unique benefits: individual student responsibility for assigned tasks; exposure to a full range of organizational functions beyond public relations; engagement in the professional public relations community; and supervision by a full-time public relations practitioner. Although PR Practicum richly supplements experiential learning through internships, it should not be viewed as a substitute or replacement.

Considering Swords and Kiely’s (2010) model for service learning, this practicum course successfully positioned faculty and students as change agents and contributed to strengthened relationships between the university and the community. Through the active engagement between faculty and students on one hand and water utility representatives throughout the state on the other, the university’s identity as a contributor to community improvement has been reinforced. Utility representatives were clear in expressing their intention to employ student-generated materials and concepts in their ongoing quest to stem improper cooking grease disposal, and that bodes well for continuing engagement with the university in refining and reinforcing communication efforts. It is encouraging, too, that students would overwhelmingly gauge the experience to have been professionally beneficial, despite involving sewage. This further suggests that the course achieved Kolb and Kolb’s (2011) transformative criterion.

This practicum was made possible through a substantial multi-year grant that began with extensive research and planning for a state-wide project. The unpredictable nature of the grant application process means this model would be difficult to incorporate reliably into a set undergraduate public relations curriculum. However, the model does point to the merits of considering the inclusion of a practicum component in grant proposals. In many cases, the prospect of experiential learning, service learning and community engagement may well strengthen the competitiveness of a grant proposal. When funding is available, a Public Relations Practicum course, particularly one working in the public interest and thereby combining experiential learning with service learning, can be highly valuable on several levels. The students gain experience and confidence, the client/community receives professional-quality work with relatively minor investment in money and time, and the instructors gain credibility along with consultative experience.

Public relations pedagogy can benefit from PR practicum courses. The course belongs within a framework of skills and concept courses such as those recommended in the 1999 CPRE “Port of Entry Report.” PR Practicum blends tactical and strategic skills in an experiential and service learning context while it benefits students eager to expand their portfolios.

Limitations and Implications

The benefit of outside funding facilitated this course, but public relations faculty know the scarcity of such funding is a barrier to predictable inclusion of the PR Practicum in standard curricula. Pressures on class size as well as the cost of funding stock photography and professional printing could singularly or cumulatively constrain the possibility of offering such a course. Another limitation is client selection. The principles of service learning favor projects that meet a public need, and clients representing those needs often face the same financial constraints faced by college and university public relations programs. Of course, a single case study based on the happy confluence of several enabling circumstances is hardly representative, but perhaps it encourages faculty to seek similar opportunities more aggressively.

References

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