A Service-Learning Coordinator’s Conundrum: so many needs, and so little time

 

USU faculty member Scot Allgood directs incoming Connections students in a service-learning project at Hyrum State Park.

Utah State University took service-learning to a new level in developing an academic Service-Learning Scholars program in 2004 and hiring a faculty Service-Learning Coordinator in 2005 (me).

As with other campuses, the development of an official service-learning program did not “invent” community-based teaching and research at USU.  A significant number of our faculty already had been incorporating some form of service-learning in their courses, integrating course content with community action and reflection. 


USU students on a spring service trip preparing a pond for taro planting in Hawaii.


As I matured as a university professor, I shifted over time to a problem-based learning pedagogy, and was introduced to a refined version at a campus workshop on “service-learning” sponsored by a coalition of students, faculty, and administrators.  I actually remember expressing annoyance that “service-learning” was a new wrapping on an old product!  However, the workshop, and the presence of the 70 plus other faculty members with similar interests, encouraged me to rethink the nature of my students’ learning experiences.  I benefited from thinking more about reciprocity and reflection.  My students responded positively to the service-learning experience.  I got even a greater kick out of teaching.

I became a convert.

From 2005 into 2012, I served as the Service-Learning Coordinator for USU, responsible for facilitating the integration of service-learning into the fabric of our university, our community, our faculty, and our students.  I wrote these thoughts in 2006.

•••••

I’ve been in this position for a full year now, and I find myself even more passionate about what service-learning offers.  However, the strange force called “realism” has tempered my enthusiasm.  I’ve gone from an “if you build it, they will come” mentality to a “one block at a time” mindset.

That’s my job as Service-Learning Coordinator, to build our service-learning program one block at a time.  

Some of these service-learning “blocks” are more unfinished than others, requiring shaping and polishing.  Here are some examples:

 •  Community partners don’t always define their needs in pieces or divisions appropriate for a particular course.  In a 15 week semester, subtracting a few weeks at the beginning of the semester to orient students to the topic, and a few weeks at the end for reflection and assignments, an instructor may have a window of only 8-12 weeks for students to work on and complete a service-learning project.  Community partners may have broad, continuing needs, such as adults to serve as mentors for youth for an entire school year.  This is in no way an insurmountable problem.  It simply requires that I listen very carefully to our community partners and help them package their requests for assistance in units appropriate for a semester-based course.  That is in addition to making sure that requests for assistance fit the requests for community partners.  Involvement in service-learning should never hurt a community partner.

USU students planting trees and shrubs at Second Dam in Logan.
Jordan Risley is on the left.

•  Faculty are time-limited folk.  We are asked to do a lot, yet the planet never slows its rotation, giving us 24 hours to fit in work, a personal life, and sleep.  Asking faculty to put more time into organizing a service-learning project without giving them any release from the other pressures of teaching, research, extension, advising, and university service is a tough sell.  I need to do what I can do to make this easier.  It may involve me walking across campus to collect the signatures for an application for a course to be designated officially as service-learning.  I may make the initial contacts with community partners.  An instructor may need a small grant, teaching assistance, advice, training, an evaluation letter, or an explanation for their department head or dean.  They may need assistance in finding peer-reviewed journals that may be interested in a report on their service-learning work within their academic discipline.  They want to know how this affects their efforts toward promotion and tenure.  This requires that I listen to faculty and understand their needs, wants, desires, and, yes, fears.  With all the pressures put on faculty, why should they put extra effort into service-learning?  I have to be able to answer these questions in the language of their discipline and their departments. Involvement in service-learning should never hurt a faculty member.


John Engler was an early advocate of service-learning in his English Composition courses at USU.

•  Students are perhaps the most polished group.  They want a superior and relevant education. The challenge in service-learning is to link service with the curriculum.  Service itself is not an issue.  Our students already volunteer tens of thousands of service hours through our Val R. Christensen Service Center, one of many volunteer opportunities available in Cache Valley.  However, students typically choose their own volunteer opportunities.  Taking a service-learning course means that service is a requirement.  It is my challenge, working with community partners and faculty, to make sure these service-learning opportunities add to that superior and relevant education, and don’t detract from that goal.

Delena Williams presenting her bird house to my wildlife class. Bird houses were given to the City of Nibley for use in their wildlife programs. The late Ron Hellstern championed these efforts.


There were a lot of bird houses constructed!


Service-learning requires community partners, faculty, and students to work together.  I feel a great responsibility to make sure each and every person involved in a USU service-learning project receive the benefits promised by this pedagogy:  a deeper understanding of the course material, knowledge of community needs, development of civic responsibility, professional vigor, and assistance in making our communities, our state, and our nation a better place for all.

Dani Babbel, USU's Civically Engaged Student of the Year, 2010, and now a physician.

And there is the conundrum… this all takes time.  I have to develop the connections, familiarity, and credibility with community partners.  I have to provide opportunities, incentives, and assistance for faculty.  And I have to make sure students are constantly getting what they deserve… a superior and relevant education.

My students building 4 chamber bat nesting boxes with assistance from ASTE faculty member Trevor Robinson (pictured to the right), and then donated to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. They built 20 that semester!


My teaching assistant Adam Hestetune (right) and undergraduate phenom Cheyne Warren (left), working out the details of bat box construction.

The process is taking longer than I realized.  I wish I had more courses designated as service-learning.  I need to know more about the needs of our community partners.  And I want to chat with each and every student looking for assistance in developing a service-learning project or in becoming a Service-Learning Scholar.  At the end of the day, my list of projects seems to be greater than when I started.  This is not a complaint.  It is my acknowledgement that service-learning isn’t quite as natural as getting popcorn at the theater, or as smooth as Aggie ice cream.

Elisa Stone (Salt Lake Community College), Stacey Frisk (Cache Humane Society), and I giving a presentation to engaged faulty from across Utah on how to identify community engagement projects involving animals and animal issues.

Shaping and polishing the service-learning blocks takes time, but I am certain that with constant, ongoing effort, attention to these blocks will assure that our service-learning program has a strong and enduring foundation.  After we reach this point, I look forward to the next stage:  “if you build it, they will come.”

Saddleback Community College biology professor Jane Horlings and I are sorting recyclables at the USU Recycling Center with students.

USU students ready to prune sidewalk trees for the city of Logan.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Formal nights on cruise ships... observations from the deck

The politics of non-alcoholic beer - a continuing saga of misinformation

Cougars killing and eating people. Why?