Service Learning Projects Essays

Essay on Service Learning

While I was working on databases and spreadsheets at the American Red Cross, for hours at a time, I would often think to myself, “what is service learning, and why do we have to do it?”

Most of the time, I simply thought of it as forced volunteerism, with no real direction, or purpose. This is due to the fact that the reason that we were made to volunteer was not exactly revealed to us. So, I decided, for my paper, to make some discoveries about Service Learning.

These discoveries would be made most likely by viewing other schools’ programs, which implement service learning. The facts that would be of most interest are, service learning itself, the definition of service learning, the benefits of service learning, and finally, how service learning should and needs to be implemented into the curriculum, most importantly, the pharmacy curriculum.

I thought, before heading into my service learning experience at the Red Cross, that Duquesne’s pharmacy school would already have a grasp of the concept of service learning, how it should be implemented into the curriculum, and most importantly, how it benefits the students. Benefit to the students, has to be the most important aspect of the entire concept, because if there is no real benefit to the students, there is no good reason to waste valuable time on an education strategy known as service learning.

The education strategy that is known as service learning is not a new strategy at all. The roots of service learning can be traced back to the 1930’s. It was during this time that a man by the name of John Dewey founded the concepts that would eventually lead to the formation of service learning. This was apparent in his assessment of education, in which, he theorized that effective learning required context through application and experience. Dewey called for an approach to teaching that was democratic, participatory, and interactive. His philosophy of education was the foundation for approaches such as service learning that extend students’ learning beyond the walls of the classroom. An important aspect of Dewey’s assessment of learning and education was that learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection. It is in the reflection stage, through discussion groups, journals, and papers, that Dewey believes, students really learn from their experiences and make connections to things relevant in society and also their future profession, which is pharmacy, in this case.


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Although Dewey made his introduction of a new approach to learn in the ‘30’s, his concepts were not really put into practice until recently. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, various government, organizational, and educational programs sponsored activities that included service learning, such as internships with government agencies. Pharmacy internships, or experiential education, as Duquesne would call them, would be included here. In the 1970’s, several national associations dedicated to service learning were established. By the 1980’s and 1990’s, many national groups involved with higher education launched service learning initiatives. Among them, was the American Association of Higher Education’s Service Learning Project, which includes a multiyear initiative to enrich service learning practice in 18 disciplines, one of which, is pharmacy.

Dewey did not, himself, define service learning. He simply laid out the ideas for what would become service learning. With Dewey not defining service learning, many different interpretations of it can be made. One good definition of service learning that I found, was, “Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development.” (Fredericksen). This definition seems a bit wordy and it is easiest to define service learning if you break it down. If broken down, Service Learning is a combination of Service, community action and Learning, often seen as additional knowledge gained. Thus, when the two are put together Service Learning is the acquisition of knowledge through community service.

Although the key component of service learning is volunteering, service learning differs from volunteering in that service learning is connected to classroom instruction and academic requirements. Service learning can also be distinguished from internships and other forms of experiential learning. This is due to the fact that these types of learning do not necessarily involve students in social problems or in addressing unmet community needs, as service learning does.

Service Learning was created for a purpose. The main purpose behind it was to benefit the student in a way other than the benefits received from the classroom. These benefits, however must be real and evident to the students, if the program is to be successful. When the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas first incorporated service learning into their curriculum, some the intended benefits to the students were to improve their communication skills and to help them gain a better understanding of needs and issues in the community. When comparing other service learning programs, having students interact with members of the community seems to be a common benefit. According to the Academic Service Learning Advisory Committee, some of the benefits of students interacting with members of the community are that students become aware of their community’s needs, they have an opportunity to connect with members of the larger community who can offer important partnerships and resources, and also makes students more committed and involved in the community they belong to, thus building teamwork and leadership skills.

Another benefit that the University of Texas College of Pharmacy believes can result from service learning is that students will learn the concepts of caring and social support. This, the college believes, is where pharmacy students benefit most from service learning. This is due to the fact that pharmacists should be able to understand patients’ circumstances and be able to empathize with their situations. According to the University of Texas, an essential characteristic for pharmacists is being able to show empathy to patients. This beneficial trait of a pharmacist can be gained through service learning, where students often go to locations where the people there do not have very much, and are often not as privileged as themselves. The University of Texas also hopes that its pharmacy students will develop more effective communication skills as a result of service learning. The communication will be improved by it being necessary for the students to modify their communication style to the people and situation they are working with.

Teacher, Rebecca Sipe gives many reasons why service learning is beneficial and is more than simply, “doing time.” According to Sipe, the various benefits of service learning include, academic development, cognitive development, career development, social development, personal growth, increased civic mindness, motivated, involved students, collaboration and research opportunities, and reduced behavioral disruptions. Other proponents of service learning claim that it improves student learning, helps students understand the responsibilities of living in a democratic society, and addresses important social problems facing communities. All of these benefits might seem possible from service learning, but all are qualitative benefits and cannot really be measured to prove the fact that there is any real benefit from service learning.

While service learning has many supporters, it also has many who disapprove of it. Some academics feels that service learning dilutes the curriculum by consuming student time and energy that could be better spent in traditional academic pursuits such as library work or research. I know that many pharmacy students feel the same way. They would rather spend more time on learning about drugs and pharmacy than volunteering their time at a soup kitchen. Another criticism of service learning is that the true impact of the projects to the community. This is also a common problem with service learning. Although sixteen hours may seem like an eternity to some students, the truth is that more time must be put in for students to do something real and truly develop skills such as communication skills.

Although there are numerous faults with service learning, there are many benefits apparent that can help students. But, this is only possible if the course is structured and implemented into the curriculum appropriately. This must involve the faculty to evaluate the community sites and have the school and the organization have an agreement on what types of work the students will be doing. For example, the University of Texas has an agreement with the sites that the students go into that mandates interaction of the students and the people that organization serves. The faculty should also assist the student in the goals that are to be accomplished at the site. Rebecca Sipe continues in her article about how to have a beneficial service learning experience. She maintains that successful service learning projects are built on three key elements. First, the project should provide meaningful service to others and this service must meet the needs identified by both the school and the community organization. Second, the service learning project must provide clear connections to the goals for the class. Finally, service learning projects must provide ample time to allow self-reflection of the experiences. This will allow ongoing and in-depth learning.



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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.

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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.

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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

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