Students learn more when they use their skills to help others
Story by Mary Lane Gallagher
Anthropology Instructor Kathleen Saunders knows a class about the economic factors of hunger and poverty can be an emotionally overwhelming experience for empathetic college students.
So Saunders put her students to work to help solve the problem of hunger – at least for a few people, for a little while.
“Why educate them if it’s hopeless?” asks Saunders, a senior instructor who has taught at Western since 2000.
The students gleaned tons of leftover fruits and vegetables from fields that had already been harvested for market. They delivered the produce to food banks and converged on a church kitchen to cook apple crisp for hundreds. Then they sat down for dinner alongside hundreds of low-income, hungry people.
“To deeply understand how it can be that there’s bountiful food and there’s hunger at the same time, there’s nothing better than to go gleaning,” Saunders says. “One glorious morning, we pulled four tons of apples. It was impressive for them to understand an effort by those 25 people on that morning put four tons of produce into the hands of people who normally can’t afford it.”
Saunders’ service-learning practices caught the attention of the Center for Public Anthropology, which honored her earlier this year with the Eleanor Roosevelt Global Citizenship Award.
But as part of a growing network of Western faculty who use service-learning in their courses, Saunders is hardly unique at Western. From Management and Communication to Spanish and Fine Art, thousands of Western students are heading out to the field to serve others by applying what they’ve learned in class.
In the 2010-11 academic year, at least 113 classes included service-learning in the classwork, more than quadruple the number of the 2008-09 year. Many of these courses are taught by faculty members who, like Saunders, participated in the Service-Learning Faculty Fellows program with Western’s Center for Service-Learning, a small office that helps faculty members work out the logistics of getting service-learning into their courses, including finding nonprofit groups to work with.
The center also tracks service-learning data at Western. Their most impressive statistic: Students will spend at least 70,698 hours in service-learning activities during 2010-11.
Service-learning projects help students learn how to solve problems, apply data and knowledge, meet goals and work together in groups, says Tim Costello, the center’s director, who attributes part of the growth to good word-of-mouth among faculty members who catch their colleagues’ enthusiasm.
“Our faculty are always talking about better learning outcomes and more dynamic classroom environments,” Costello says. “It enlivens their own teaching.”
Communication Associate Professor Karen Stout, who for years has dispatched small groups of her Event Planning students to work with area nonprofits, says the real-life experience helps her students see the value of what they learn in the classroom.
“I can tell them things until I’m blue in the face,” Stout says, “but they’re not going to believe me until they either hear it from a guest speaker or learn through direct experience.”
Stout weaves students’ experiences into discussions and exam questions to illuminate theoretical concepts. A poorly organized pickup table at a charity silent auction can illustrate discussions on conflict management, intercultural conflict, and power and control, Stout says.
Some of instructor Kirsten Drickey’s Spanish students were a bit intimidated at first to use their fledgling language skills to communicate with fluent Spanish speakers at the family literacy night in Lynden. But once there, they realized they knew more Spanish than they thought they did, Drickey says.
“It helps motivate them, which helps them academically,” says Drickey, who hopes to continue the library partnership. “One student told me she liked it so much she’s volunteering to work with orphans in Peru this summer.”
Management Assistant Professor Mary Sass has watched her students blossom while helping area nonprofits manage change. It can be pretty difficult explaining organizational theory to young people without much experience in the world of work, Sass says.
“I can’t think of a better way of giving them an opportunity to understand how theory is applied,” Sass says. “And I can’t believe how much confidence students will build over one quarter. They’re no longer in the student role, but in the teacher role.”
All these skills – leadership, communication, teamwork and applying knowledge – make service-learning experience
attractive to future employers, says Jennifer Dorr, executive director of Western-based Washington Campus Compact, a coalition of colleges and universities that provides funding and technical assistance to service-learning programs throughout Washington state.
The motivational aspects of service-learning – helping students see that what they’re learning can make a difference in the world – has also drawn the interest of organizations hoping to encourage more first-generation college students to pursue higher education, Dorr says. The same holds true for those hoping to attract students to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
There are a lot of economic advantages to service-learning, in the form of better job skills for students and more interest in academic fields that feed the state’s high-tech economy. But service-learning offers more than an economic payoff, Dorr says.
When students learn that applying their knowledge can help others, “they begin to see their role as part of the solution, not just as economic drivers,” Dorr says. They learn that they can do more than write a check to support a cause; they can use their expertise to contribute to the common good in their workplaces, communities and beyond.
Natalie Mickey, 22, of Hockinson, says she knew very little about the community until she joined Saunders’ Economic Anthropology class and gleaned enough carrots to fill a whole truck. She says the experience opened her eyes to economic inequality. Right after taking the class, Mickey studied abroad in Israel, where she volunteered at a community garden producing fresh food for low-income people and teaching neighbors about composting. When she graduates, Mickey hopes to return to Israel and work in environmental education.
“Once you’re educated about something, you can’t get it out of your knowledge,” Mickey says. “It’s so easy to have it get you down. But when we went out and did something about it, it was much easier to handle. The world became a little smaller, and we can handle a little bit at a time.”