Let Freedom Ring: Students Shape Their Coursework Through Independent Study

Sat at a long table, students Alana Miller (right) and Ethan Schmid (left)and Professor Lisa Hilbink between them are talking and smiling. They're surrounding a laptop atop the table, the Alana Miller with their hand on the trackpad.
Ethan Schmid (left) and Alana Miller (right) meet with Professor Lisa Hilbink (center). Photo by Claudia Staut, CLA student.

With microphones ready and background research complete, undergraduate students Alana Miller and Ethan Schmid sit down to interview a guest and record their podcast, A & E Talk Politics, a project they’ve chosen to do as part of their independent study course. 

Independent study is an individualized way of learning where students take a course without actually attending a class. Students work with a professor and form a project based on what they learned. Collaborating with Political Science Professor Lisa Hilbink, Miller and Schmid created a series of podcast episodes as an independent study. A podcast may seem like an unconventional approach to demonstrate what they’ve learned, but it was a way for Miller and Schmid to dig deeper into their interests and connect with scholars in the political science field.

A Fascination with Politics 

When Miller and Schmid arrived on the UMN campus, neither of them knew that they would end up studying political science. Miller says that she actually didn’t know what she wanted to study when she first started at the U. However, after taking a few political science courses, she “became fascinated with learning about politics and, quite frankly, saw how so much of what we learn as political science majors applies to [...] everyone in our everyday lives,” she says.

That same fascination drew Schmid to the field. He started college as an engineering and computer science major. During the pandemic, he decided to change his area of study because he learned more about what was happening in the world around him due to COVID. He says that this practice “enlightened [him] on the many injustices that occur constantly, [...] pushing [him] to believe that [his] time would be better spent pursuing the social sciences.” Political science allowed Miller to “gain a very deep and versatile understanding of how the world works.”

How They Started

In the fall semester of 2021, Miller came to her Latin American politics professor Lisa Hilbink with the idea of creating a podcast on various political science topics. “Professor Hilbink suggested we create the podcast through the POL 4994 independent research course so that we could get university credit and have her as our advisor,” she says. They worked on the podcast throughout the following semester, highlighting international topics they wanted to learn more about. 

Miller enjoys podcasts and thought that it would be interesting to try making one herself. She drew inspiration from her favorite podcast, “Pantsuit Politics,” which discusses current events. She admires the hosts’ effective and informative discussions.

Miller and Schmid recorded five episodes, with each episode covering a different topic: democracy in theory and practice, the ongoing constitutional rewrite process in Chile, immigrants and refugees, the US embargo on Cuba after 60 years, and climate change mitigation. Four of the five episodes featured a guest who provided further insight and information on the topic being discussed. “We interviewed various scholars and professors, and we gained a deeper understanding of the material,” Miller says. 

Their podcast combined interviews with an audio essay format, and because it was an independent research project, they were able to have freedom with it. “The independence you’re granted,” Schmid says, “makes it feel like you are personally [making] a positive impact on the world.”

Building Stronger Relationships

Independent studies have many pros, Hilbink points out. “It allows students with intellectual curiosity and initiative to get credit for the time and effort they put into the project, rather than having to do it on top of a full course load,” she says. Further, she adds that it allows students to build a stronger relationship with their professors, which is especially beneficial for mentoring or letters of recommendation.

“Our podcast may seem like a slightly unconventional way of diving deeper into material that we find interesting,” Miller points out. But she says that “the amount of research and collaboration that goes into this particular kind of project is extremely rewarding in the sense that we’re able to learn more, publicly post our work, and receive feedback from others.”

Always Learning

The effect that an independent study project can have on the world was Miller’s favorite part of making the podcast. She says that she would get messages from listeners saying that they learned something new, which was fulfilling for her. “As humans, we will be learning throughout the entirety of our lives, so we wanted to try something new to further educate others as well as ourselves,” Miller says. 

As Miller and Schmid continue in college and their lives, this project will have a lasting impact. Not only have they formed a stronger connection with Professor Hilbink, but they also learned how beneficial an independent study can be. Because of this podcast, both students had the opportunity to dig deep into a few topics that really interested them while receiving school credit—something that only an independent study could make happen. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLA.

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