Service and Scholarship Intersect


Michelle Sharpswain, PhD, is a different kind of educator. She brings learning and community service together in a public way. The classroom doesn't necessarily always require chairs in front of a chalk board.

"Kids are capable of citizen scholarship, but are seldom called," says Sharpswain, co-founder of  Madison Expeditionary Learning Academy, whose high school opens next year. She spoke to Madison South Rotary on August 26.

One example of citizen scholarship is the partnership with Lodi's Treinen Farm that annually produces a corn maze, designing it by hand and without GPS. In one of Sharpswain's week-long summer camps, each of her students learned to design a maze and get feedback from each other. Ultimately, one of the students' 12 maze designs was selected to be created in the corn field, where 20,000 visitors will eventually see it. She says nobody was disappointed when the chosen design was announced because they all had a hand in influencing it. 

"The students are invested in each other's work" because they provide critiques in hopes of making it better.

"[The corn maze project] was a way of connecting math and art," she explains, giving the students a challenging task in a public environment.

Sharpswain says citizen scholarship comes down to three main principles: rigor, relevance and relationships. The students resolve to attack a challenging project that has meaning to the community and to the students and then engage with others outside the classroom to achieve their goal.

In another project, they created a Free Little Library by designing and painting it. After receiving the materials from a donor, they could hardly wait to show off their work and unveil their baby to the man who donated the supplies, as well as to the larger community. When it was completed, Sharpswain says, "the students were so proud to show him what they did with his wood."

The school endeavors to remain small, serving anywhere from 10-40 students the first year and building from there. Next year, it opens with just a freshman class, and will likely be located in downtown Madison.

For more information, visit


Posted on August 26, 2013 .