IN THIS ISSUE:
Many educators believe that requiring students to do community service is a good thing, but no research has ever proved them right. Kelly Ward has changed that.
Ward, an assistant professor in the School of Education at UM, set out last year to determine whether service learning combining volunteerism with classroom learning really does have a positive influence on a community.
Although Ward had a wealth of information describing how service learning helps students learn better and teachers teach better, she found no information that indicated whether service learning really helps the agencies where students volunteer.
There has literally been no research done on the impact service learning has on the community," Ward says. We all assumed it's a good thing. We assumed that; we didn't know that."
With the help of grant money from the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education and the Corporation for National Service, Ward and education Associate Professor Marian McKenna, along with several graduate students, took a survey to uncover the effects service learning has on a community.
They began by questioning directors at 65 nonprofit agencies from four Montana towns, then conducted follow-up interviews with 30 of these directors. The communities that we surveyed and interviewed really did have overwhelmingly positive views of the campuses," Ward says.
In fact, 92 percent of the community-service directors Ward questioned held positive views about their local university or college, and 77 percent said students were effective or very effective in helping them meet their community-service goals.
Those figures illustrate the two major benefits of service learning: supplying the community with needed volunteers and giving students a chance to apply what they learn.
Frequently, college students take what they learn right out of the college classroom and into an elementary or junior high classroom. For example, a chemistry professor might require her beginning-level students to volunteer during a local hazardous waste cleanup drive, or she might send them to a local grade school to perform experiments for youngsters.
They're providing a service and at the same time learning about chemistry," Ward says. The intent is to try to get students excited about science.
Integrating community service and classroom learning isn't a new concept. Across the United States many universities and colleges maintain campus-based community-service offices. Called Campus Compacts, the offices started appearing in the early 1990s, when university presidents became increasingly concerned that their institutions weren't living up to the community-service commitments alluded to in their mission statements.
Ward knows firsthand about Campus Compacts. From 1994 to 1997 she directed the Montana Campus Compact, a 13-member coalition of Montana schools and universities. Her job was to mend the town and gown split between Montana colleges and community agencies by matching students with agencies needing volunteers.
Now, as a professor, Ward approaches the problem from a different angle by using research to direct changes and improvements. She and Andrea Vernon, a doctoral student in educational leadership and counseling, recently submitted some of their findings and recommendations to the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Though their paper offers some background on the benefits of service learning for students, the emphasis is on how community agency directors perceive service learning.
The directors surveyed by Ward and Vernon overwhelmingly characterized student volunteers as young, enthusiastic workers who made it possible for organizations such as senior living centers to provide patients with the one-on-one care they would not receive without volunteer help. Eighty-two percent of the respondents were happy with what their student volunteers accomplished.
When the students are there, they're dedicated," Ward says.
But, as Ward discovered, students sometimes cant be there. Long intersession vacations and frequent holidays mean students aren't available during high-demand times, such as Christmas.
And, says Ward, it's hard for agencies to coordinate volunteer hours when students have classes, paying jobs and families to attend to, in addition to volunteering.
Not all the problems directors pointed out related to students, though. Many of the directors surveyed would like the chance to contribute back to the universities and wish professors would invite them to speak to classes more often. They also think there isn't enough communication between the campus and the agencies to take full advantage of the service-learning experience.
What we're hearing from the agencies is that they want more connection with the campus," Ward says. If we really want to use community service as a way to address societal problems and community problems, then it really does require a really genuine collaboration and partnership."
-- Kerry Thomson