Service-Learning In and Out of the Classroom
In the summer of 2013, the University of Central Arkansas introduced the service-learning program via seminar to UCA faculty, hoping to adopt service-learning practices in classrooms to give students even more opportunities to engage and impact the community. Service-learning provides students with the knowledge they need to address issues they are studying in class and practical application to solve real-world problems in the community. The service-learning program was officially approved during the 2012-2013 academic year, but the program really began to take off during the 2014-2015 academic year.
So, what exactly is service-learning? “If you are just learning, it’s not service-learning, and if you’re just volunteering, it’s not service-learning,” said history professor Dr. Kim Little. “Any time a professor constructs a service-learning project, he or she needs to make sure that the students are learning something that is associated with the class as well as providing a service to the community.”
“Sometimes service learning is not a direct one-on-one kind of thing in the community. It can be a research project that will benefit an agency, organization or the government,” said Dr. Peter Mehl, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and service-learning faculty liaison. “There are a number of different models and different ways to incorporate service-learning into the classroom, as long as it fits the curriculum for the class.”
According to the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, academic service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities.
Although the service-learning program was only recently adopted into UCA’s academic curriculum, many professors were already believers in this practice. “As a faculty member, I’ve been doing service learning in my public relations campaign class for over 10 years, probably five years before it was called ‘service-learning.’ It just made sense to me,” said Dr. Amy Hawkins, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and permanent member of the service-learning advisory committee. “You begin to see students really start making connections between what they’re able to do in the real world and how they might put their education into use in a tangible way once they graduate.”
“Before service-learning was introduced officially, I had been contacted by Richard McFadden about building trails with Ken Smith, author of “The Buffalo River Handbook,” and I had taken students from my environmental history class to the Buffalo River for an overnight field trip already where we met with Ken,” said Little. “Ken and Richard had both said, ‘Hey, this would be a great project for your students!’ So, the first thing I did was make it an optional project for my students, and it became a service-learning opportunity.”
Service-learning is an important approach to facilitate learning and an increasing number of professors are beginning to incorporate service-learning into their classrooms. These practices not only benefit the community, but they also give advantages to students. “There are so many benefits for students,” said Dr. Lesley Graybeal, service-learning coordinator. “To me, the most important benefit is that service-learning research shows that it increases students’ academic success and retention rates.”
” The aim of education is not only to prepare students for productive careers, but also to enable them to live lives of dignity and purpose; not only to generate new knowledge, but to channel that knowledge to humane ends; not merely to study government, but to help shape a citizenry that can promote the public good.”
– Ernest L. Boyer
The community is also reaping the benefits of UCA’s service-learning program. “My campaign class works in competitive teams to write campaign proposals for nonprofits every semester, and it’s extremely gratifying to be able to give nonprofits that kind of service,” said Hawkins. “When my students work with addiction, homelessness or food insecurity, they have a completely different level of motivation. They really start to realize that these problems aren’t problems out there, but that they are right here in this community. They want to serve.”
“For the University, it builds goodwill in our community. It fulfills important community needs and I think it’s part of our mission at UCA to connect with our local community,” said Graybeal. “The students tell me that they like to serve the community because it’s the right thing to do. I think everybody serves because they recognize themselves in someone else, because they recognize their common humanity and they want to share that. We share this world with other people. I think that’s ultimately the reason why anyone feels the need to serve others.”
“You can learn from books. You can learn from hearing lectures. But most people learn better by doing,” said Little. “And so, if we can get them learning by doing, with service-learning, and provide service to community at the same time, then we’ve got a win-win situation for the University, for the students and for the community partner. You can do it in a big way or a small way, but either way, it’s going to have an impact.”