“The whole world is the laboratory for my courses.” That’s a belief that has underscored Professor of Psychology Sharon Carnahan’s academic life since 1990, when she taught her very first community engagement course titled The State of Florida’s Children, a course inspired by the work of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.
“We put students out in the child care community, observing and assessing, then helped them to understand why the overall quality of care in Orange County was substandard,” Carnahan says. “The students were so moved by the struggles of the working poor that they spontaneously organized their own fundraiser and made a major donation of toys and books to a Head Start center in Zellwood.”
Carnahan was struck by her students’ resourcefulness and conviction to make an impact. “That one class hooked me,” says Carnahan, who has taught variations of The State of Florida’s Children course ten times since that inaugural class. “I learned that my students are splendid, resourceful people; that we often underestimate them; and that they burn for a better world.”
23 years later, Carnahan continues to weave the community into everything she does, especially when it comes to being an advocate for children. “I started asking the question; do children in Florida grow up the same whether they are rich or poor, in terms of equal access to things like education, health care, justice, and food?” Carnahan says. “I discovered that they do not. In fact, one in five Florida children lives in poverty, which seriously affects their development.”
That’s an insight that Carnahan says galvanized her focus on Florida’s children, and set the stage for two decades of work dedicated to influencing early childhood care in the state. Along the way, she’s conducted three major grant funded projects involved in raising the standards for early screening identification and developmental screening. She’s been appointed to a statewide taskforce on developmental disabilities and early identification of children at risk. She’s created early intervention best practices that ensure kids don’t reach kindergarten with undiagnosed delays or trauma.
Her work in the realm of human development has spawned consulting work and international travel to the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Rwanda, where she has supported early literacy curriculum, developmental screening, and pre-school education. “These travels have really enriched my teaching here at Rollins,” she says.
And she’s also been the executive director of the Rollins College Child Development and Student Research Center (CDC), a laboratory school devoted to demonstrating the best in early childhood education and supporting early childcare research at Rollins. Through the CDC, Carnahan and her team have allowed more than 1,000 undergraduates to conduct high quality research in all kinds of disciplines ranging from psychology to mathematics to sociology. On any given graduation day, 1 in 10 graduates sitting in the crowd has worked at the CDC in some capacity.
“I believe that ‘curriculum’ is everything that happens to a student at Rollins, from the moment they are accepted to the day they cross the stage at graduation,” Carnahan says. “I plan community-based encounters and service learning as a core component of the curriculum in nearly all of my classes. And it’s been my great fortune to work in a very supportive Psychology Department, and at the CDC, where students observe and work with a diverse group of children, visit their families, collect data, and write case studies.”
Last year, Carnahan developed a partnership with the Orlando Science Center for a research project developed by the National Science Foundation. “The Living Lab” gave a group of 12 Rollins seniors the chance to do hands-on scientific research centered on children’s brain management skills. The students were asked to do a psychology experiment on the floor of the Science Center while explaining their scientific process and findings to the crowd looking on.
“The students worked with 50 children and were able to share how to run an experiment and how we create a hypothesis,” Carnahan says. “And the parents learned about executive functioning. I think they were grateful to the Rollins college researchers for giving them new insight into their child’s development.”
“This experience is truly exporting the CDC training and knowledge out into the scientific community,” Carnahan says. “I send students out into the community all the time as researchers and volunteers, but this was different because we were sharing the process of scientific research. It was studying out loud in front of a crowd.” The partnership has now evolved into a Rollins Conference Course called Sharing our Science.
“For me, much of good teaching is knowing when to get out of the way and let your students be taught by structured experiences, in and out of the classroom,” Carnahan says. “It is also important to provide them with the research and theory they need in order to understand what they see and experience. We bring our prejudices with us like turtles bring their shells. Education is partly about learning to peek out of the shell and see the world as it is.”
Along the way, Carnahan sees students transform their naïve views. “A student may visit a public health clinic and see only ‘fat welfare mothers with unruly children.’ They see, at first, the stereotype,” she says. “But an educated student will know that for every unemployed mother on public assistance, there are 100+ working low-wage service jobs to support their families, and that poor prenatal care, stress, lack of sleep, and family violence contribute a lot to poor behavior in young children.”
Involving the community in her curriculum is second nature now to Carnahan. “Community engagement is the soul of what I do.”