The Community Experiential Learning Center

Bringing curriculum and community together

by Michele Berhorst • November 18, 2022

The CELC Team (left to right): Duana Russell-Thomas, OTD, OTR/L, and Mario Millsap, MSOT, OTR/L.

When Lisa Tabor Connor, PhD, MSOT, OTR/L, returned to Washington University in St. Louis to become the executive director of the Program in Occupational Therapy, she came with a vision: to embed community within occupational therapy (OT) learning.

“One of the messages that was communicated loud and clear by the faculty was the need for innovative, contemporary learning spaces. Additionally, one of the Program’s strengths is educating future occupational therapists by providing them rich opportunities through engaging with community organizations," says Connor. "Combining these two ground truths, the vision for the Community Experiential Learning Center (CELC) was born.”

Design and construction

Plans to renovate the Program’s space at 4444 Forest Park Avenue began in early 2021. KWK Architects, who specialize in higher-education design, created floor plans and interior designs that would transform the space into an innovative and active learning environment. The CELC space features a 1,587-square-foot great room with modular furniture that can be rearranged as needed to accommodate a variety of curricular activities and a 247-square-foot conference room for meetings, collaborations, training and presentations. Seven breakout rooms of varying sizes surround the great room to support small group work with community members, participant assessments and simulated clinical experiences.

The highlight of the design is the fully accessible kitchen that includes ADA-compliant countertops and appliances designed to enhance inclusion for all. The kitchen supports educational, clinical and research activities related to activity, participation and function.

Construction started in December 2021 with the demolition of the existing structure. United Construction, led by onsite project superintendents Dino Pappas and Tom Mays, was responsible for the day-to-day construction work and scheduling during the next nine months. Paul Duell, senior project manager of capital projects at Washington University, provided oversight of the entire project from start to finish. He coordinated the large team of architects, planners, engineers, contractors, facilities and Program leadership to bring Connor’s vision to life. On Aug. 15, the CELC officially opened its doors in time for the Program’s annual fall kickoff event that same week.

VALT technology

Embedded throughout the contemporary design is the state-of-the-art Video Audio Learning Tool (VALT) system, which leverages the power of video to improve education, training and research with enterprise-class streaming technology. VALT was designed to improve clinical skills training and the assessment process by integrating audio-video capture and observation technology.

Through an easy-to-use Web interface, activities can be live-streamed and/or recorded in any CELC room, including the kitchen. VALT was also installed in the newly renovated hospital room simulation lab and classroom 509 located on the lower level. The system can capture lectures, demonstrations and presentations that happen in these spaces, and the recorded sessions will form a digital resource video library. Educators are also able to observe in real time what is happening in any room for small group activities. VALT’s technology can be used for student clinical experiential learning components so educators can review performance with students, allow students to reflect on their own performance, and for faculty to provide valuable feedback to enhance skills and professional reasoning.

The CELC team

Duana Russell-Thomas, OTD, OTR/L, assistant professor of occupational therapy and medicine, is the CELC’s director. The role is a natural fit for Russell-Thomas, who has practiced community-based OT for 20 years. She has served as a lecturer and clinical specialist in chronic disease in the Program’s Community Practice since 2013. Before that, Russell-Thomas was the Community Practice manager from 2008 to 2013. Since 2010, she has led the Arthritis Center of Eastern Missouri, one of seven regional centers designed to offer arthritis-friendly physical activity and self-management programs. Her clinical interests focus on chronic disease, health disparities and trauma-informed care.

As the CELC director, Russell-Thomas provides leadership, community outreach and program development and works collaboratively with faculty to help design innovative educational experiences for students. She oversees the administration and operations of the CELC including community-led research, program evaluation and communications. Russell-Thomas is also leading efforts to build and strengthen community connections and partnerships critical to the CELC’s success.

“The CELC’s mission is to use state-of-the-art technology and community partnerships to provide innovative active learning opportunities that maximize student clinical competency, advance educator growth and promote community health,” Russell-Thomas explains. “We are situated in an area of St. Louis that has significant unmet health needs and marginalized community members. The CELC provides opportunities for students to work collaboratively with community members and form unique perspectives on client-centered care in an OT educational space.”

It was important for Russell-Thomas to hire an occupational therapist and coordinator who understood the CELC’s mission from both a student and community perspective. Mario Millsap, MSOT, OTR/L, was the ideal candidate, with clinical experience in pediatrics, acute care, home health and community-based mental health.

“I'm a Class of 2020 graduate, so to come back in a professional role as a clinician was a big moment for me because I understand how important OT is for society at large. As a student, working with individuals experiencing homelessness reinforced the immense value OT can provide to our communities when given the opportunity,” Millsap shares. “I want to utilize my experiences and perspectives to help make OT an equitable, inclusive, justice-based profession for everyone.”

Having a center run by two community-centered, Black OT professionals in a predominately white institution sets the CELC apart from what other OT programs offer in the way of experiential learning. It’s also significant as the
OT profession itself does not represent the diversity found in the populations it serves.

“Representation matters. This is an opportunity to show others who may not have considered a career in OT that there are people that look like them in the field. For the community at large, having someone help them achieve their goals who may have a better understanding of their perspectives or life experiences can translate into better care,” Millsap says.

Increasing competency

One of the primary goals of the CELC is to address students’ preparation and competency in clinical skills. Creating opportunities for all students to have more “hands-on” experiential learning is a priority. Bolstering students’ confidence in their communication and professional reasoning skills in preparation for Level II Fieldwork assignments through more experiential learning with a diverse client base was the bedrock on which CELC programming was established. Although planning for the CELC began before the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on opportunities for experiential learning was reinforced by the pandemic as fieldwork sites across the country canceled or suspended student placements indefinitely. Non-traditional fieldwork opportunities were created by partnering with local community agencies to deliver OT services to at-risk populations virtually or by safe, limited in-person visits.

“The pandemic reinforced how critical our community partnerships are in preparing students for practice. Our partners provide direct access to people in need of the unique health-care services that OT offers,” Russell-Thomas explains. “The skills and confidence students acquire through experiential learning stem from knowing they have helped someone improve their health and well-being."

In addition to clinical competency, the CELC team wants students to have cultural humility as well. People of racially and culturally diverse backgrounds, as well as people with disabilities, often experience health disparities from health-care providers. The CELC uses these five pillars as its guiding principles: trauma-informed care; climate justice; justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; evidence-based practice; and promotion of civic responsibility.

“We want our students to deliver effective, quality care to patients who have diverse beliefs, cultures, attitudes, values and behaviors. To do that, we need to build strong relationships with our partners and the people they serve,” Russell-Thomas says. “We want the CELC to be accessible and inclusive to all.”

Moving forward

The first academic year of the CELC is underway. Four faculty members have incorporated the CELC’s space and technology into their courses. Initially, community members will primarily participate through course-driven experiences. Ideas, concepts and procedures are being piloted as the Program explores the CELC’s capabilities. Lenin Grajo, PhD, OTR/L, who specializes in developing evaluation tools, will work with the CELC team to measure outcomes such as room/technology usage, faculty course encounters, student competency and community engagement.

“We are embarking on an exciting, new era of OT education at WashU,” Russell-Thomas says. “Together, we can make the CELC a vital and essential part of the Program.”


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