In January, students in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs got an email with a video about a class called second-year-seminar. They’d be investigating a “crime” but it wasn’t a criminal justice course. They would be dealing with the media, but it wasn’t a communications or journalism course. Leadership and social issues would be in play, but it wasn’t a public administration course.
Making its debut this spring semester, the class, now called “Urban Adventure,” is an experiential, scenario-based class that gives students the opportunity to learn about the effects a crime can have on a community. The curriculum incorporates each academic discipline from the Urban Affairs college.
“What’s really unique about the college is how integrated all of the different disciplines are already,” Dean Robert R. Ulmer said. “We’re taking them through, right from the beginning, a very traumatic experience and asking them to put their skills to work.”
The simulations emphasize the impact of community issues like interpersonal violence, trauma, and homelessness.
“It’s really good that students get a sense of how much their careers are based upon other people,” Ulmer said. “We want them to have a real-world understanding of where they live. It’s getting people to think outside of themselves.”
A woman was found in a dented vehicle with a bullet hole and shattered glass, apparently the victim of the gruesome crime. A homeless teen was found dead in the stairwell of Greenspun Hall. Students split up into teams. Some worked on collecting forensic evidence. Others interviewed witnesses or updated social media accounts providing information to the public. They took turns searching a classroom transformed into an apartment where they found key evidence linking the scene to the first crime.
To make the crime scenes as real as possible, a makeup artist was brought in. The car was donated to the urban affairs college. Actors played huffy witnesses storming away from investigators. Passers-by filmed videos on their phones. Students asked witnesses about a domestic fight. Students, in the roles of community liaisons, consoled neighbors.
Students in journalism professor Michael Easter’s writing class covered the crime scenes, pressing up against police tape, trying to get answers and hit their deadlines. They grilled the “urban adventure” students acting as public information officers, like Alisha Bleakley.
“All of us were blown away by how much effort went into the class,” said Bleakley, a UNLV junior majoring in communication studies. “You got into it right away because of how realistic it was. I love the class. It’s just really hands-on and you’re actually learning by experience instead out of a book.”
There have been about 50 people involved in specific aspects of the course development including urban affairs faculty, staff, students, community members like social workers, actors, make up artists, and former Metro investigators who have been working with the students.
Derek Krueger, a junior journalism major, and Bleakley worked the crime scene themselves, but they did it under the invaluable supervision of seasoned professionals.
“It was really neat to get that knowledge from people who have been in it,” Krueger said. “I think it’s something that everyone should go through just to see what it’s really like.”
In developing the class, Ulmer and criminal justice chair Joel Lieberman wanted to create an environment that allowed students to utilize communication, collaboration, and leadership skills.
“What it really did was reinforce my belief that you want to have experiential learning. It’s one thing to tell people to do things,” Lieberman said. “It’s another thing to face the challenge of actually applying lessons.”
Among the individuals they drafted to assist in course development was Jim Young, a retired detective-sergeant who spent 29 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Young drew from his breadth of experience investigating violent crimes and assisting for years with training police officers to help craft the scenarios the students are working to unravel.
“This way the students can take the learning theories and concepts and see how those apply in an actual situation, and they get to do it in a controlled manner where there’s no serious repercussions,” Young said. “The main thing in order to make the instruction valuable is to make the scenarios as real as possible.”