After years of one-off partnerships between Fitchburg and Fitchburg State University to collaborate on specific projects, a newly formed university group is providing a formal structure to support more work that benefits the city, students and faculty alike.

The Community Scholarship Group, run by the university’s Crocker Center for Civic Engagement, provides an avenue for linking the city and local organizations with faculty members willing to undertake community projects.

The group makes it easier to match city or community needs with the research, skills and abilities available at the university, while also allowing faculty members to identify themselves as available for that kind of applied scholarship, according to Crocker Center Coordinator David Weiss.

Fifteen faculty are participating so far, and the university hopes to expand participation as it highlights how civic projects can benefit the city and the community while also expanding the academic portfolio of faculty, Weiss said. Students also benefit by being able to apply classroom knowledge to real-world problems.

The city and university have collaborated on projects in recent years by word-of-mouth. Tom Skwierawski, the city’s community development director, said FSU students have worked with the city on preliminary marketing work, using survey results to create a data-informed analysis of the city’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. That work will inform the city’s future marketing plans.

“It was a pretty impressive body of work that they created for us,” Skwierawski said.

Another project, he said, used the university’s Data Science and GIS Department to help inventory commercial and industrial properties as the city works to address the challenge of vacant or abandoned properties.

FSU faculty and students also helped the city inventory residential and commercial properties as part of its ReImagine the North of Main neighborhood planning project, Weiss said. Faculty and students in exercise science, nursing, and geographic sciences worked last summer on studying environmental factors of the Nashua River, which runs through downtown Fitchburg.

The use of FSU faculty can involve minimal cost, depending on the cost of the project itself, Weiss said, but community partners would see “greatly reduced costs” as part of this applied scholarships program, and grants could be used as well.

Skwierawski credited FSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Alberto Cardelle, who joined the university in 2016, with helping the university move toward a more collaborative learning environment that also helps the community.

“It’s well borne out in research that the more tangible your learning can be, the more benefit that can be for the students, and for us as a community, there’s only so many things we have in our toolbox at any time,” he said. “Anything we can do to boost their skills and knowledge but also boost our capacity, that’s something to be supportive of.”

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