Community Service Learning Essay

Service Learning:
Connect Classroom Learning with Societal Issues

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James Madison University students installing a meteorological tower in Quinby, VA. Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Provenance: Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
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This page builds on ideas and outcomes from faculty discussions at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012.

Service learning engages students in genuine problem-solving and brings their learning directly into their community. When emphasizing connections with societal challenges, service learning is a natural fit for students to forge working relationships with community partners and to embark on the complex, yet enriching, process of tackling real-world problems.


Jump down to: Concepts Taught via Service Learning | Effective Teaching Strategies | Opportunities for Strengthening Teaching | Teaching Materials

Pedagogic guidance for bringing service learning into your classroom

There are many benefits of service learning, including enhancing student learning and personal development while also providing benefits to other constituents. These advantages, among others, are discussed in the Service Learning module from Pedagogy in Action. This module contains pedagogic grounding in using the service learning method, ideas for classroom implementation, and examples of over 30 service learning projects from a variety of disciplines.

The On the Cutting Edge project explored the use of service learning in a geoscience context. As a result of a 2010 workshop, the module Service Learning in the Geosciences was produced. This module contains resources about project design, student motivation, assessment, and more than 35 geoscience examples of service learning projects.

What concepts or outcomes can be addressed using service learning?

Service learning is an effective means to teach about sustainability and to link classroom learning to community challenges.

Using service learning, students can:

  • see the relevance and tangible application of how concepts learned in class relate to society
  • develop an understanding of the research process from "big ideas" to experimental design to analysis
  • experience the complexity and unpredictability of engaging with real world problems
  • learn to synthesize, integrate, and infer relationships
  • develop independence and learn professionalism
  • understand the nature of non-unique solutions
  • be resourceful to solve challenges independently and creatively
  • develop "soft skills" in working with community partners
  • see themselves as relevant and empowered
  • strengthen civic agency
  • improve motivation and take their work more seriously when they have a real client.
Read more about the benefits of service learning from Pedagogy in Action.

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Students work in community gardens that provide hands-on learning for University of Georgia students interested in Urban and Sustainable Agriculture. Photo by Stephanie Schupska, UGA CAES.

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Effective strategies for teaching with service learning

Designing, executing and assessing a service learning project can be a complex process that is not without risks. However, you can take advantage of the wealth of experience, resources, and materials developed by other faculty.

  • Scale the project so that it is appropriate for the skill level of the students and the time frame allotted.
  • Have classroom content that dovetails with service learning activities.
  • Have students write about their activities in a journal, blog or web page as one mechanism for assessment.
  • Make use of expertise and resources from the community/stakeholders.
  • Have the class collectively participate in a research project from conception to completion.
  • Use scaled activities. These can be effective and increase student motivation. For example, there might be an expected level of effort for a course, but additional effort may lead to co-authorship of a paper.
  • Outsource research experiences in order to help manage faculty loads and broaden student experiences.
  • Use service learning successes to improve town-gown relations.

Learn more about How to Use Service Learning and The 8 Block Model for Project Design, and Assessing Service Learning Projects.

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Students from the University of Colorado add photovoltaic panels to their 2005 Solar Decathlon house. The team carefully selected the home's rooftop PV system and building-integrated PV awnings, which provide shade as well as electricity. Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Provenance: Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Reuse: This item is offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ You may reuse this item for non-commercial purposes as long as you provide attribution and offer any derivative works under a similar license.

Opportunities to strengthen the use of service learning

A successful service learning project requires cooperation at many levels: from students, community partners, institutional administration, and departments. Thus, there are many pathways to creating a robust environment for service learning.

  • Develop partnerships with research institutions who have capacity to take on small student projects.
  • Seek out opportunities to integrate disciplines or create partnerships around a central theme (a water cycle mural project combining art and science, for example).
  • Convey to students why a research experience is important for them (e.g. a product to share with potential employers or graduate advisors).
  • Strengthen or create new outlets for presentation, sharing and publication of student research or products of service learning.
  • Make use of online services such as the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, which offers a search platform leading to thousands of service learning resources for all educational levels, including curricula, publications, assessment resources, and funding ideas.
  • Explore resources offered by Campus Compact, a national coalition that promotes public and community service and includes partnerships among more than 1,100 college and universities. The Campus Compact aims to help campuses forge effective community partnerships, and provides resources and training for faculty seeking to integrate civic and community-based learning into the curriculum.
  • Develop strategies and resources for teaching research skills.
  • Have students do the leg work to develop their own projects.
  • Develop mechanisms for connecting the faculty/class resources with community needs (matchmaking).
  • Pursue support from administration to address challenges and limited resources available to support student research.
  • Have coursework support research and work towards an integrated curriculum.
  • Communicate the value of student research projects to administration and peer colleagues (e.g. for promotion/tenure).
  • Develop a white paper on the importance of research and service learning in undergraduate education.
  • Create a virtual faculty mentoring program through an online forum or email list to share the experience.
  • Support civic agency - get ideas for course design and activities.

Materials and Resources for Service Learning

See how other faculty are using service learning projects with these examples from a range of disciplines and learning environments.

Collections of service learning projects

Service learning example projects, from Pedagogy in Action, contains projects from the sciences, economics and education.
Service learning projects, from On the Cutting Edge, has examples from the geosciences.

Relevant materials from InTeGrate workshop participants

Essay: Service Learning in Interdisciplinary Courses - Maureen Padden, McMaster University
Activity: Service-Learning to Explore Sustainability - Tracy Lai, Seattle Central Community College

Courses that use service learning:

Other Service Learning Resources

A) The name of the agency was Thomas House Temporary Shelter and its mission is to provide a safe, supportive environment and resources necessary for homeless families with children to remain together while empowering them to become independent and self-sufficient. Their program also includes transitional shelter, case management, counseling, life skills development, employment assistance, resource assistance, children’s program, graduate extension program. At this agency, my role was to help young residents or children to succeed in school. I was to provide tutoring for homework help and any other academic work given by the agency.

B) At this agency, it gave me a chance to develop educational relationship with children and to cooperate with other volunteers to successfully aid children with their studying. I never had a chance to teach a child before this community service but after teaching them, I was surprised how much I enjoyed working with them. This volunteering experience definitely improved how I will work with children in the future.

C) In terms of putting myself to this community placement, it gave me a perspective on my own life to appreciate what I have and the family support that I received. Lots of children residing at the shelter experience abusive family relationship and poverty, which has a negative affect on their mental health. Just knowing what these children had to go through made me realize that I had it a lot better than they did and it taught me to be more thankful for what I have. Socially, by being part of this Thomas House Shelter agency, I was able to learn to be more approachable and out reaching to people. Emotionally, I was content that I can help out these children to better them. Intellectually, I felt smarter to be able to teach children when I have never taught children before. Lastly, professionally, I was able to remain professional relationship with the coordinator that was in charge of the shelter.

D) Honestly, in the beginning of service learning, I had doubts about service learning and was expecting not much from it. However, by volunteering at the Thomas House Shelter agency, I was able to meet my service learning goals. I was able to enhance children’s self-esteem and confidence by complementing on their accomplishments. I was also able provide needed assistance to the children while complying with coordinator’s directions. I also learned about what single parent/mothers go through and what we can do to help them to establish a better family. Overall, the whole experience was meaningful and helpful to meet my service learning plan goals.

E) As a result of my placement, I was able to positively influence children on education that it can be challenging. For example, one child that I was teaching was really smart but did not like to show that he was capable of doing hard problems. It seemed like he gets easily distracted and was not interested in showing his abilities to do problems. In order to get him involved with work, I had to encourage him and compliment how good he was at math. Then, he got more involved and he was finally able to tackle some problems that he was not interested before. In my opinion, I was able to encourage children in this community that were not encouraged before.

F) In terms of CSL enhancing the understanding of the course material and making abstract concepts real, I really learned a lot about single mother parenting and poverty issues. The majority of the single parents at the shelter were mothers that were taking care of the children. From the text book, it stated that majority of single parent mothers are from minorities and at the Thomas house shelter, it certainly supported the statement. There were mostly African American single parents and Hispanic or Latino single parents residing at the shelter. There was only one White single parent residing at the shelter out of 15 or more families. It is a sad fact but minority women are the ones suffering the most from single parenting issues. G) The most difficult part about volunteering at the shelter is the working hours and number of volunteers working at the shelter. The volunteer starts at 5:00 PM and it would take me around 40 minutes to get to the shelter from school. Distance wise is not that far but traffic is the cause for a long commute. Another difficulty that I faced is that there are too many volunteers so that I had to compete with the volunteers in order to make connections with the children.

If I had a chance to have one on one relationship with a child, I would be able to make better connection in terms of child and a teacher relationship. The most satisfying aspects of my community work are that working with children and seeing them improve their grades in school. Even though these children are going through poverty and hard time, in the end they are the same children as any other children. They love to have fun and goof around and experiencing these children just made me a better person and content about myself.

H) For the future CSL students, I high recommend volunteering for children if you never have. This was my first time working with children and it taught me the importance of teaching and family aspect of life. These kids are bright and fun, so if you learn to work with these kids to positively influence their life in a right path, it will give you a surreal feeling of accomplishment by working with them.

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