As students are exploring potential classes to take this upcoming fall, “Effective Learning Across the Lifespan” may be the experience they didn’t know they were looking for. An upper-division psychology course, the class’s roster will not only include 5C students, but also local Claremont community elders.
An intergenerational learning opportunity that connects undergraduates to elders, this course is part of the broader Napier Initiative founded in 2010. Although this is the first Napier course at Claremont McKenna College, the classes have been running for 11 years at the 5Cs and are just one aspect of the broader Napier Initiative — a partnership between Pilgrim Place (a local senior community) and the 5Cs. In addition to the Napier courses, the program consists of mentorship and fellowship components, in which two student fellows can win the Napier award which provides them with funding for social impact projects.
Taught by Associate Professor of Psychology Sharda Umanath, the upper-division psychology course is open to all 5C students by PERM and will be the first Napier course taught at CMC. The course will delve into evidence-based strategies for learning and retention of knowledge, in the classroom and beyond.
“I’m really excited to bridge evidence-based work on learning to what it means to be a lifelong learner,” Umanath said.
Umanath runs the Memory & Aging Laboratory at CMC, where she conducts research on how knowledge functions in memory and is maintained with healthy aging. She first discovered the Napier Initiative through a colleague and later attended a banquet where she learned more about these intergenerational courses. While preparing to write a National Science Foundation Career Award grant, Umanath developed the idea of creating a Napier class as part of the teaching initiative required for the grant.
“One of the things I wanted to do, in terms of taking the research I was going to do and actually pulling it into the classroom and community, was to teach a Napier class,” Umanath said.
Unlike past Napier courses that have explored a wide variety of topics, such as religion and women in science, this course is directly tied to aging and evidence-based strategies for learning that are relevant to both undergraduates and elders. The class will contain about 12 undergraduates and six elders and involve dynamic group work and civic engagement, as well as smaller projects that undergraduates and elders collaborate on. Umanath is planning on presenting information in the format of both popular science books and journal articles, so the knowledge can be accessible to everyone.
Umanath hopes her course will allow both students and elders to become critical consumers of science.
“We are constantly being asked to learn new things, and not only knowing evidence-based strategies but understanding how that evidence works, are skills that students are going to be able to use across the lifespan,” she said.
Paula Hui PO ’67 has participated in two past Napier courses and described the environment as one where everyone — undergrads and elders alike — participated and shared their life experiences. Both her previous Napier classes incorporated diverse speakers and field trips, as well as reading and writing assignments.
“We [elders] were involved in everything,” she said. “We were treated just like the undergrads and did the work.”
Nikodem Bisaga PZ ’22 is currently enrolled in “Political Economy of Food,” a Napier course being taught by Professor of Politics Nancy Neiman this semester. The class has spent the semester discussing topics like food system inequalities on a global and national scale, as well as unraveling ingrained structures that perpetuate these issues. The course is divided into affinity groups, which are “small groups of about five students who meet for an hour each week outside of class to discuss readings for the class” with one elder, according to Bisaga.
“It was through my discussions about these particular topics that I developed a newfound appreciation for elders who are open to these world view-shifting conversations despite decades of internalized ideologies,” Bisaga said.
Through these affinity groups, Bisaga has not only developed a friendship with the elder in his group but also become more open to having meaningful conversations with older generations. He described this course as “eye-opening and emotionally impactful,” despite going into the semester with no prior knowledge about the Napier Initiative.
For undergrads, this course will pave a way for students to stay involved with the Napier Initiative and form long-term relationships with elders who serve as their mentors. Both Umanath and Hui stressed the importance of Napier courses unraveling stereotypes and biases in society around older people and generational divides.
“I’m excited for students to see that elders have so much to contribute,” Umanath said. “They have a wealth of knowledge and experiences to share and will hopefully make it easier for students to engage with the community.”