Students spread kindness and start conversations with UA Rocks initiative

By:    Date: 02-16-2017

After tackling a host of difficult and sensitive topics in class, students in a University of Alabama service-learning course decorated rocks with uplifting words and art and hid them on campus Feb. 14, hoping to brighten someone’s day. The idea for the UA Rocks project grew from the popular 901 Rocks and 910 Rocks initiatives, says Dr. Sandra Cooley Nichols, course instructor and an associate professor of special education.

“The premise supporting the initiative is to cultivate joy and inclusiveness on campus,” Nichols says.

To aid people in finding the rocks, students created Instgram, Facebook and Twitter accounts with photos of the rocks and hints about their locations. (Search “UARocks1831”.) When someone finds one of the painted rocks, he or she can keep or re-hide it.

During Fall 2016, 64 students researched and discussed poverty, education, health care, domestic violence, mental illness, balancing studies and life, and the presidential election through the SPE 100 Exceptional Lives in Society course, which introduces non‐education majors to characteristics of cultural diversity, exceptionalities and social/behavioral issues in the 21st century. The Spring 2017 class of 42 students is analyzing similar subjects through the course.

“I noticed that the students had a difficult time engaging in discussions about the topics,” Nichols says. “I worked to create a safe environment that allowed us to talk about the issues, their causes and what the students can do to improve the situations. They became more cognizant of their responsibility to ‘do the work where they are’ and that ‘every little bit helps.’”

Students also conducted small-group or individual analyses of four social issues and provided possible solutions. Nichols says that while all students were interested in making a difference, the assignment revealed that misinformed views and fear of the unknown often hampered their ability to be socially and ethically responsible stewards.

“The class helped me learn to lend a hand to anybody in need and try to be a speaker for people who don’t have a voice,” says Octavious Lockhart, a senior from Valley, Ala., majoring in management information systems.

Students from both the Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 classes decorated rocks that were hidden Feb. 14.

“The students embraced UA Rocks as a way to start conversations about various topics, which will ultimately lead to action that enhances our community and the world in which we live,” Nichols says. “We also believe that this simple act of kindness will increase basic social interaction on campus.”

Lockhart says he wants the rocks to spread a message of hope to every person who finds one. “We as a community have to stick together instead of going against each other,” he says.

In addition to attending class, students in SPE 100 Exceptional Lives in Society each dedicate 20 volunteer hours to a community organization and attend at least five community events such as council meetings, school board meetings and speaker presentations or forums. Class assignments require students to reflect on their volunteer hours and the community events they attend in relation to topics they explore through the course.

Because the Fall 2016 semester coincided with the U.S. presidential election, students took on an extra assignment: analyzing the four candidates and presenting their results. In groups, students examined the Republican, Democratic, Green Party and Libertarian candidates’ positions on subjects including the economy, poverty, education, environment, discrimination, world relations, crime, child abuse, health care, mental illness, abortion and disability services.

Students listed the pros and cons of each position and created posters displaying the information they gathered. They presented their projects Nov. 1 during a gallery walk and panel discussion.

Students ended the semester with individual presentations summarizing how the information they learned in SPE 100 affected them and how they will become involved in enhancing their communities.

For more information about SPE 100 Exceptional Lives in Society, contact Dr. Sandra Cooley Nichols at 348-6226 or scnichols@ua.edu.