Society often considers post-secondary education to be an essential element to today’s knowledge economy. However, while Canada holds one of the highest rates of post-secondary attainment rates across other commonwealth countries at upwards of 66 per cent, some students who have the potential to succeed are subject to barriers within their participation.
The McMaster Discovery Program offers university-level, non-credit courses to adults within the Hamilton community who have faced various barriers to accessing higher levels of education within their lives. The program aims to create opportunities for residents within the community to participate in the process of learning within the arts, inspire passion for life-long learning and foster community engagement within McMaster and the broader City of Hamilton.
Currently in its seventh year, the program was initially developed for McMaster when Prof. Jean Wilson, the Director of McMaster’s Arts & Science Program, discovered similar experiential programs happening in other cities throughout Canada. Early discussions of the program began with members of the McMaster Community Poverty Initiative and a variety of Hamilton community members.
With support from the Office of the President and several community partners, McMaster launched the initial phases of the Discovery Program in 2011, offering the course at the Hamilton Public Library’s central campus to approximately 20 participants every Saturday for two months.
"We encourage our students to study and learn for the purpose of personal growth. It is very important to the program that there is no one goal for students leaving the program."
McMaster Discovery Program, Program coordinator
The course serves as an opportunity for individuals who have may not had previous experience within academia to learn in an experiential way, while providing the McMaster community an opportunity to learn from the local community. Each course is supplemented with a professor, a Program Coordinator, and a student support team, often compromised of undergraduate Arts & Science students, to ensure students needs are met throughout the course.
This year’s program coordinator, Marina Bredin, who is responsible for recruiting students and creating a program that accommodates students needs while considering the logistics of running a course, notes that this program is a crucial step towards learning for personal growth.
“We focus on learning for learning’s sake, and creating an atmosphere free from assessments that are common in a University classroom,” said Bredin. “Instead, we encourage our students to study and learn for the purpose of personal growth. It is very important to the program that there is no one goal for students leaving the program.”
The McMaster Discovery Program has explored a variety of topics since its inception. These topics, while enabling students to explore their own abilities within learning and discovery, are deeply rooted in Hamilton’s history.
The pilot course, titled Voicing Hamilton, looked at historic works of Hamilton’s literature and art in order to engage students to develop their own creativity. Focusing on various stories people have told about the city of Hamilton, students enrolled in the Discovery Program were able to develop their own projects that shared their personal stories of the city.
In 2013, Prof. Ann Herring from the Department of Anthropology introduced a new course titled “Plagues and the People of Hamilton,” which was offered for three years. The course surrounded the topics of pandemics and plagues throughout history in Hamilton specifically, including field trips to the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology and the Hamilton municipal cemetery on York Boulevard, where victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic are buried, and the nearby memorial to cholera victims who died in 1854-55.
"When I watch [the professor] bring up the many aspects of resilience and I watch the students reaction it’s often, for some, a brand new word with brand new meaning,”
Former professor at the School of Nursing
In 2016, Prof. Anju Joshi, Department of Health, Aging and Society, was introduced as a new Discovery Program instructor. Joshi’s course, titled Diversity and resiliency: Human Differences and our Ability to Overcome Challenges, examines human differences, how these differences can create challenges for people in their daily lives and how people overcome these challenges.
Although students within the course do not earn credits or degrees, the focus of the course is on the learning experience itself and how learning can be applied to community needs.
Mary Buzzell, a former McMaster professor within the School of Nursing, has sat in on courses offered within the McMaster Discovery Program for the past two years as an observer and contributor.
Her role within the course is to examine both teaching and learning styles while offering feedback or insight if the occasion arises. Buzzell notes that while she acts as an observer within the course, she takes away a significant amount of information within her time there.
“I think often we don’t think of the word resilience in our everyday life, and when I watch [the professor] bring up the many aspects of resilience and I watch the students reaction it’s often, for some, a brand new word with brand new meaning,” said Buzzell. “I think it’s a very rich experience. It helps me grow, and for me, it’s like enlightenment.”
Barriers to immediate post-secondary education can differ for many people. These barriers could revolve around financial struggles, cultural factors, family environment or being a first generation student, or accessibility needs.
McMaster’s Discovery Program is just one of many hands-on learning programs offered across Canada. Several universities across the country offer similar free, non-credit programs to residents within their respective communities.
"To me the Discovery Program is first and foremost opportunity."
Retired professor, Faculty of Nursing
Titled, for the most part, as Humanities 101, these liberal arts focused courses offer a chance for community members with a passion for learning to explore their own options and local resources. These programs typically differ within their curriculum, with each program varying widely in how they achieve their overall goal of promoting learning and discovery.
“To me the Discovery Program is first and foremost opportunity,” said Buzzell. “Opportunity for several students in the class who have not had a learning opportunity except in their basic schooling, so opportunity to learn and not be afraid to ask and inquire.”
Many individuals who participate within Humanities 101 programs would not have had the opportunity to access higher education otherwise. Throughout these programs across Canada, there is a unifying understanding of the importance of learning and how it can empower students in their everyday lives.