Five Reasons to Consider a Service Learning Project
If you’re an educator, you may have heard the term “service learning” and concluded that it’s a community service project which is taken on by a group of students, and spearheaded by a teacher.
You’d be partially correct. While service learning is indeed grounded in activities which are intended to improve a community, the ‘learning’ element plays a key role too. The National Service Learning Clearinghouse defines it as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”
These five ideas illustrate some of the benefits of service learning:
- Students develop leadership, communication, and teamwork skills. From the beginning of a project, students apply important skills which will benefit them as they transition to higher education and the world of work. Because a service learning project includes multiple components, students must learn to collaborate and discuss their ideas, which helps improve their ability to work as a team and communicate. And whenever students get the opportunity to take charge of something important, they rise to the challenge. Ideally, a service-learning project is student-driven. Though younger students may need support and guidance, they can still identify challenges they see in their community, and begin talking about possible solutions. Older students will have a wider worldview, and may end up with a range of issues they hope to tackle. Regardless of age, students will begin building a set of relevant, useful skills.
- It’s a window to career exploration. Depending on the specifics of the project, engaging students in service learning can provide insights into careers. For example, students who collect canned goods as part of a food drive, then learn about nutrition and organize the goods into healthy meals, are learning very basic ideas about what dieticians and nutritionists do. This could spark an interest in some students, which they could continue to investigate as part of other projects and through personal research. Because there’s an emphasis on making an academic connection, students are able to see specifically how their classroom learning can have wider applications.
- It makes social issues less abstract. If you ask a student of almost any age to share the challenges plaguing their community or the world at large, they’ll probably be able to rattle off several. Homelessness, drug abuse, lack of healthy food, and poverty are some of the problems students may observe in their community and see in the media. But there’s often a buffer between these observations and reality. While there are students who live with these difficulties, the rest may not understand the impact on their community or their classmates. Helping your students identify a specific challenge to address can help create awareness and may lead to a lifelong commitment to service.
- Students get the opportunity to build relationships in their community. Service learning requires students to get out of the classroom, and helps them meet local leaders. Networking is often overlooked as a skill which needs to be taught, especially to younger students. But having students meet influential people from government and community organizations is a great way to build relationships. A service-learning based setting can be a great icebreaker and provide common ground for communication between children and adults. As students enter high school and college, and want to perform additional community service, they’ll have contacts from their service learning projects who may be able to help. Learning to network is a vital skill for career success, and a service learning project can help students begin to hone these skills.
- The community and cause benefits from the students’ efforts. According to the Center for Community-Engaged Learning at the University of Minnesota, there are multiple advantages to connecting students and service. Engaging students is a good way to increase public awareness of an organization’s purpose and challenges. For example, food pantries often receive an abundance of donations around the holidays, but find that they struggle to meet needs during the rest of the year. If students developed a service learning project around supporting a local food bank, they could run a food drive, while communicating the need for year-round donations, giving them a chance to learn about nonprofit marketing.
If you’d like to engage your class with a service learning project, begin by considering the needs of the school itself. A great first project might be found right outside your classroom door, and doing something to strengthen the school community will have a strong impact and may inspire more interest in service learning. Once students are familiar with designing and implementing a project, they can apply their knowledge to something more extensive.
Service learning is so much more than a community service project. It’s an educational approach which makes learning more hands-on, providing benefits to students which they can later use as they pursue higher education and careers.
Tracy Derrell is a Hudson Valley-based freelance writer who specializes in blogging and educational publishing. She taught English in New York City for sixteen years.